Many Christians have a different understanding of how history will progress, holding different views on millennialism. After having previously discussed the four different millennial views, distinguishing dispensational premillennialism, historic premillennialism, and amillennialism from postmillennialism, I now wish to progress in making a case for the latter. This will involve a demonstration of the general timeline followed by both amillennialists and postmillennialists, thereby refuting the two variants of premillennialism. This will also include an alternative interpretation of Revelation 20.
A Refutation of the Premillennial Timeline
The general timeline followed by premillennialists is that Christ will return at some point in the future, which we can expect at any time—and they usually believe it is very soon—at which point He will usher in a 1000-year kingdom. He will reign visibly on earth with His saints for that millennium, in accord with the literal interpretation of Revelation 20:4. Following this millennium will be the resurrection of all who were not already resurrected to reign with Christ (Rev. 20:5), a final satanic rebellion (vv. 7-10), and the final judgment of all (vv. 11-15). Therefore premillennialists contend that Christ’s second coming is not simultaneous with the final resurrection of all or with the final judgment, instead positing a full thousand years between those two great cosmic events. Amillennialists and postmillennialists, on the other hand, assert that Christ’s second coming is simultaneous with those events.
Scripture denies the premillennialist view, teaching that Christ’s second coming and the final judgment occur at the exact same time, or at least very near one another (Matt. 16:27; 25:31-33; Jude 14-15; 2 Thess. 1:7-8; Rev. 22:12). The only way for the premillennialist to avoid the perspicuous import of these passages is to say that Christ is merely mentioning these two events with each other, not implying anything of their temporal relation. But this explanation fails. Just consider, for example, the first verse I listed, Matthew 16:27:
For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works.
The premillennialist must take the phrase “and then” to permit the interpretation of “and after a very long time,” but it is obvious that such an interpretation is impermissible. The passage teaches a near simultaneity of Christ’s return and judgment. This is even more clearly stated in Matthew 25:31-33:
When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left.
Such a passage hardly needs commentary. When Christ returns is when He will separate the sheep from the goats for eternity. The only way to escape the force of these passages is to state that this is referring to some third coming of Christ, as if He departed after the millennium and then returned again—but that is just not what premillennialists say, as it is not supported by a literal reading of Revelation 20. The passage does not speak of a departure of Christ and a subsequent return. Hence these passages must be referring to Christ’s second coming, demanding the amillennial and postmillennial timeline.
Proof of One General Resurrection
Revelation 20:4-6 speaks of a “first resurrection” and implies a second resurrection, and so premillennialists take this to mean that there are two significantly different cosmic events, two different resurrections punctuated by 1,000 years. The passage reads:
And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. But the rest of the dead did not live again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he who has part in the first resurrection. Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with Him a thousand years.
It, again, is clear how a literal understanding of this passage leads to the premillennial view. Two resurrections are implicitly stated, leading premillennialists to believe in an initial resurrection of the righteous and a later resurrection of the wicked.1 But what does the rest of Scripture say? Do other Scriptures militate against a literal interpretation of this passage? First, the passages concerning the simultaneity of Christ’s second advent already imply that two resurrections cannot be future events of history, since those events’ close occurrence outlaws any thousand-year gap from existing between two resurrections. Therefore, even if the Bible did not say anything outside of Revelation 20 regarding whether there will be one or two large-scale resurrections, we still would have great reason to reject the literal rendering of Revelation 20. However, in addition to this, a good case can be made from Scripture that one general resurrection of the righteous and the wicked is taught. Though it is not as evident as the biblical teaching on the simultaneity of Christ’s second advent and the final judgment, Scripture still shows that there is only one general resurrection.
There are three passages I wish to address that teach a general resurrection of the righteous and the wicked: Acts 24:15; John 5:28-29; and 1 Cor. 15:22-26, 51-54. Acts 24:15 is the least clear of the three. In it St. Paul says the following:
I have hope in God, which they themselves also accept, that there will be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and the unjust.
This passage is not particularly powerful in refuting the two-resurrection view, since Paul is making this statement in passing, and it would not be unreasonable to take his phrase “a resurrection of the dead” as referring to the fact that everyone will be resurrected rather than to one corporate resurrection-event. For example, in a different context, someone might say, “I have hope that there will be a punishment for the wicked”; in saying that, he could be referring to the fact that each unbeliever, immediately after death, experiences hell torments. In this case, he would mention “a punishment” which would actually involve several separate events at different times. Similarly, it could be that Paul is referring to the fact that all will be resurrected, even though it might occur at different points in time. Thus, the passage is generally underdeterminative, although it would still lend prima facie weight to the one-resurrection view. Although “a resurrection” can be taken to refer to refer to a temporally separated plurality of events, its default or initial meaning is clearly that there is only one resurrection. This interpretation is strengthened when we view another main passage, John 5:28-29, wherein Jesus says:
Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.
Our Savior’s words here carry more weight than Paul’s, since He is actually addressing the resurrection and final judgment in context (thereby additionally evidencing that those two events are simultaneous), and since He here speaks of an event occurring in a temporally short period of time when all men, both workers of righteousness and workers of evil, will be resurrected. He actually speaks of two different resurrections in a sense, one of life and one of condemnation; but He makes it clear that this is one event, not two split apart by an entire millennium. It is not problematic to speak of one general resurrection as being two, since the point in dispute is the amount of time separating the events, not how many events into which the overall event might be subdivided. (For instance, if there were one billion elect persons who were raised in the resurrection of the righteous, then it would not be incorrect to speak of the event in which they are all raised as either one resurrection or one billion resurrections.) At any rate, the text is clear: “the hour is coming” when “all who are in the graves” will be resurrected and judged. There will be one general resurrection.
The third passage in consideration involves Paul’s discourse on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, verses 22-26 and 51-54 in particular:
22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. 23 But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. 24 Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. 25 For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. 26 The last enemy that will be destroyed is death.
51 Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed— 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. 53 For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. 54 So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”
This passage is perspicuous. According to vv. 23-24, “the end” comes following the resurrection of the righteous, and according to vv. 51-52, the elect shall receive resurrection bodies “at the last trumpet.” There is no room for an entire millennium between the resurrection of Christians and the final judgment. The premillennial timeline is false.
An Alternative Understanding of Revelation 20
Given that Scripture itself forbids a literal interpretation of Revelation 20, it might be asked what an appropriate interpretation of the passage is. Though a complete justification for a particular figurative interpretation of this passage would require a fuller and broader look at the book of Revelation as a whole—for figurative interpretations need to be responsibly grounded in the meaning of the text, and cannot be conjured out of thin air—we will have space here only for rather preliminary observations. First, there is much in the passage to suggest a figurative interpretation: 1,000 is a nice, round number; Satan is depicted as a dragon and bound with a chain, even though he is a spirit; the souls of slain saints are still visible to be seen by John; etc. It is a vision (v. 1), and therefore it is very reasonable, not a stretch, to interpret it figuratively.2
A plausible and meaningful interpretation sees the millennium as encompassing the whole span from Christ’s exaltation to His second advent. The binding of Satan in vv. 1-3 refers to the disarming of Satan in the first century to enable the spreading of the gospel outward from Israel and unto the entire world (cf. Matt. 12:29; Col. 2:15), while the saints reigning with Christ are in heaven and in the intermediate state; the “first resurrection” is therefore the event in which the saints die to achieve a disembodied presence with the Lord (cf. 2 Cor. 5:8). The two resurrections, therefore, might be stated as a resurrection of the soul and a resurrection of the body, which both correspond to the first death and second death experienced by reprobates who die before the final judgment.3
More could certainly be stated in trying to further clarify the chapter, but it is not necessary. The basic point I wish to establish is the falsity of the premillennial timeline: the clarification of Revelation 20 is consequently secondary, included only to provide further (though not strictly necessary) warrant for rejecting the literal and premillennial interpretation of the passage. So long as a figurative interpretation is justified, the literal interpretation cannot be foisted upon non-premillennialists as a legitimate objection.
The first step in proving postmillennialism, establishing its general timeline, is complete. There still is the very fundamental dispute between amillennialists and postmillennialists—indeed, between postmillennialists and all their opponents—over the success of Christianity in sanctifying and consecrating the world. A future article will address this essential question, demonstrating from Scripture that success on earth and in time should be the Christian’s expectation.
- Premillennialists generally make this distinction between the two resurrections, holding that the first is for the saints and the second is for the damned, but Revelation 20 could reasonably allow that some saints are also raised in the second resurrection, with only certain kinds of saints raised in the first resurrection (namely, those saints who had been martyred). Whatever the particular interpretation is, the salient point is that premillennialists will hold to two resurrections separated by the millennium. ↩
- Information on this is taken in part from A Defense of (Reformed) Amillennialism by David Engelsma: http://www.prca.org/articles/amillennialism.html#No2. ↩
- Some postmillennialists disagree with this interpretation of the first resurrection, but I do not think it is essential to postmillennialism anyway. ↩