What is the millennium? When does it occur? Will Christians go through the Great Tribulation?
EXPLANATION AND SCRIPTURAL BASIS
The word millennium means one thousand years (from Lat. millennium thousand years ). The term comes from Revelation 20:4-5, where it says that certain people came to life, and reigned with Christ a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.
Just prior to this statement, we read that an angel came down from heaven and seized the devil and bound him for a thousand years and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years were ended (Rev. 20:2-3). Throughout the history of the church there have been three major views on the time and nature of this millennium.
A. Explanation of the Three Major Views
1. Amillennialism. The first view to be explained here, amillennialism, is really the simplest. It can be pictured as in figure 55.1: Figure 55.1: Amillennialism According to this position the passage in Revelation 20:1-10 describes the present church age. This is an age in which Satanís influence over the nations has been greatly reduced so that the gospel can be preached to the whole world.
Those who are said to be reigning with Christ for the thousand years are Christians who have died and are already reigning with Christ in heaven. Christís reign in the millennium, according to this view, is not a bodily reign here on earth but rather the heavenly reign he spoke of when he said, All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me (Matt. 28:18). This view is called amillennial because it maintains that there is no future millennium yet to come.
Since amillennialists believe that Revelation 20 is now being fulfilled in the church age, they hold that the millennium described there is currently happening. The exact duration of the church age cannot be known, and the expression thousand years is simply a figure of speech for a long period of time in which Godís perfect purposes will be accomplished. According to this position, the present church age will continue until the time of Christís return (see figure 55.1).
When Christ returns, there will be a resurrection of both believers and unbelievers. The bodies of believers will rise to be reunited with their spirits and enter into full enjoyment of heaven forever. Unbelievers will be raised to face the final judgment and eternal condemnation.
Believers will also stand before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10), but this judgment will only determine degrees of reward in heaven, for only unbelievers will be condemned eternally. At this time also the new heavens and new earth will begin. Immediately after the final judgment, the eternal state will commence and continue forever.
This scheme is quite simple because all of the end time events happen at once, immediately after Christís return. Some amillennialists say that Christ could return at any time, while others (such as Berkhof) argue that certain signs have yet to be fulfilled.
The prefix post- means after. According to this view, Christ will return after the millennium. The postmillennial view may be represented as in figure 55.2. Figure 55.2: Postmillennialism According to this view, the progress of the gospel and the growth of the church will gradually increase, so that a larger and larger proportion of the worldís population will be Christians. As a result, there will be significant Christian influences on society, society will more and more function according to Godís standards, and gradually a millennial age of peace and righteousness will occur on the earth.
This millennium will last for a long period of time (not necessarily a literal one thousand years), and finally, at the end of this period, Christ will return to earth believers and unbelievers will be raised, the final judgment will occur, and there will be a new heaven and new earth. We will then enter into the eternal state.
The primary characteristic of postmillennialism is that it is very optimistic about the power of the gospel to change lives and bring about much good in the world. Belief in postmillennialism tends to increase in times when the church is experiencing great revival, when there is an absence of war and international conflict, and when it appears that great progress is being made in overcoming the evil and suffering in the world.
But postmillennialism in its most responsible form is not based simply on the observation of events in the world around us, but on arguments from various Scripture passages, which will be examined below.
The primary characteristic of postmillennialism is that it is very optimistic about the power of the gospel to change lives and bring about much good in the world. Belief in postmillennialism tends to increase in times when the church is experiencing great revival, when there is an absence of war and international conflict, and when it appears that great progress is being made in overcoming the evil and suffering in the world. But postmillennialism in its most responsible form is not based simply on the observation of events in the world around us, but on arguments from various Scripture passages, which will be examined below.
a. Classic or Historic Premillennialism: The prefix pre- means before, and the premillennial position says that Christ will come back before the millennium This viewpoint has a long history from the earliest centuries onward. It may be represented as in figure 55.3. Figure 55.3: Classical or Historic Premillennialism According to this viewpoint, the present church age will continue until, as it nears the end, a time of great tribulation and suffering comes on the earth (T in the figure above stands for tribulation). After that time of tribulation at the end of the church age, Christ will return to earth to establish a millennial kingdom.
When he comes back, believers who have died will be raised from the dead, their bodies will be reunited with their spirits, and these believers will reign with Christ on earth for one thousand years. (Some premillennialists take this to be a literal one thousand years, and others understand it to be a symbolic expression for a long period of time.)
During this time, Christ will be physically present on the earth in his resurrected body, and will reign as King over the entire earth. The believers who have been raised from the dead, and those who were on earth when Christ returns, will receive glorified resurrection bodies that will never die, and in these resurrection bodies they will live on the earth and reign with Christ.
Of the unbelievers who remain on earth, many (but not all) will turn to Christ and be saved. Jesus will reign in perfect righteousness and there will be peace throughout the earth. Many premillennialists hold that the earth will be renewed and we will in fact see the new heavens and new earth at this time (but it is not essential to premillennialism to hold to this, for one could be a premillennialist and hold that the new heavens and new earth will not occur until after the final judgment).
At the beginning of this time Satan will be bound and cast into the bottomless pit so that he will have no influence on the earth during the millennium (Rev. 20:1-3). According to the premillennial viewpoint, at the end of the thousand years Satan will be loosed from the bottomless pit and will join forces with many unbelievers who have submitted outwardly to Christís reign but have inwardly been seething in rebellion against him.
Satan will gather these rebellious people for battle against Christ, but they will be decisively defeated. Christ will then raise from the dead all the unbelievers who have died throughout history, and they will stand before him for final judgment. After the final judgment has occurred, believers will enter into the eternal state.
It seems that premillennialism has tended to increase in popularity as the church has experienced persecution, and as suffering and evil have increased in the earth. But, as in the case of postmillennialism, the arguments for the premillennial position are not based on an observation of current events, but on specific passages of Scripture, especially (but not exclusively) Revelation 20:1-10.
b. Pretribulational Premillennialism (or Dispensational Premillennialism): Another variety of premillennialism has gained widespread popularity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, particularly in the United Kingdom and the United States. According to this position, Christ will return not only before the millennium (Christís return is premillennial), but also it will occur before the great tribulation (Christís return is pretribulational).
This position is similar to the classical premillennial position mentioned above, but with one important difference: it will add another return of Christ before his return to reign on earth in the millennium. This return is thought to be a secret return of Christ to take believers out of the world The pretribulational premillennial view may be represented as in figure 55.4. Figure 55.4: Pretribulational Premillennialism
According to this view, the church age will continue until, suddenly, unexpectedly, and secretly, Christ will return part way to earth, and then will call believers to himself: The dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thess. 4:16-17). Christ will then return to heaven with the believers who have been removed from the earth.
When that happens, there will be a great tribulation on the earth for a period of seven years During this seven-year period of tribulation, many of the signs that were predicted to precede Christís return will be fulfilled The great ingathering of the fullness of the Jewish people will occur, as they trust Christ as their Messiah.
In the midst of great suffering there will also be much effective evangelism, especially carried out by the new Jewish Christians. At the end of the tribulation, Christ will then come back with his saints to reign on the earth for one thousand years.
After this millennial period there will be a rebellion, resulting in the final defeat of Satan and his forces, and then will come the resurrection of unbelievers, the last judgment, and the beginning of the eternal state. One further characteristic of pretribulational premillennialism should be mentioned: This view is found almost exclusively among dispensationalists who wish to maintain a clear distinction between the church and Israel.
This pretribulational viewpoint allows the distinction to be maintained, since the church is taken out of the world before the widespread conversion of the Jewish people. These Jewish people therefore remain a distinct group from the church. Another characteristic of pretribulational premillennialism is its insistence on interpreting biblical prophecies literally where possible.
This especially applies to prophecies in the Old Testament concerning Israel. Those who hold this view argue that those prophecies of Godís future blessing to Israel will yet be fulfilled among the Jewish people themselves; they are not to be spiritualized by finding their fulfillment in the church.
Finally, one attractive feature about pretribulational premillennialism is that it allows people to insist that Christís return could occur at any moment and therefore does justice to the full force of the passages that encourage us to be ready for Christís return, while it still allows for a very literal fulfillment of the signs preceding Christís return, since it says these will come to pass in the tribulation.
Before examining the arguments for these three (or four) positions, it is important to realize that the interpretation of the details of prophetic passages regarding future events is often a complex and difficult task involving many variable factors. Therefore the degree of certainty that attaches to our conclusions in this area will be less than with many other doctrines. Even though I will argue for one position (classical premillennialism), I also think it important for evangelicals to recognize that this area of study is complex and to extend a large measure of grace to others who hold different views regarding the millennium and the tribulation period.
Before examining the arguments for these three (or four) positions, it is important to realize that the interpretation of the details of prophetic passages regarding future events is often a complex and difficult task involving many variable factors. Therefore the degree of certainty that attaches to our conclusions in this area will be less than with many other doctrines.
Even though I will argue for one position (classical premillennialism), I also think it important for evangelicals to recognize that this area of study is complex and to extend a large measure of grace to others who hold different views regarding the millennium and the tribulation period.
B. A Consideration of the Arguments for Amillennialism In favor of the amillennial view, the following arguments are advanced:
1. When we look through the whole of the Bible, amillennialists will say, only one passage (Rev. 20:1-6) appears to teach a future earthly millennial rule of Christ, and that passage is itself obscure. It is unwise to base such a major doctrine on one passage of uncertain and widely disputed interpretation. But how do amillennialists understand Revelation 20:1-6?
The amillennial interpretation sees this passage as referring to the present church age. The passage reads as follows: Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key of 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, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years were ended.
After that he must be loosed for a little while. Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom judgment was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God, and 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 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 he who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and they shall reign with him a thousand years.
According to the amillennial interpretation the binding of Satan in verses 1-2 is the binding that occurred during Jesusí earthly ministry. He spoke of binding the strong man in order that he may plunder his house (Matt. 12:29) and said that the Spirit of God was at that time present in power to triumph over demonic forces: If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you (Matt. 12:28).
Similarly, with respect to the breaking of Satanís power, Jesus said during his ministry, I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven (Luke 10:18). The amillennialist argues that this binding of Satan in Revelation 20:1-3 is for a specific purpose: that he should deceive the nations no more (v. 3).
This is exactly what happened when Jesus came and the gospel began to be proclaimed not simply to Jews but, after Pentecost, to all the nations of the world. In fact, the worldwide missionary activity of the church, and the presence of the church in most or all of the nations of the world, shows that the power that Satan had in the Old Testament, to deceive the nations and keep them in darkness, has been broken.
On the amillennialist view the scene described in verse 4 occurs in heaven: John said, I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus....They came to life, and reigned with Christ a thousand years (v. 4).
Since John sees souls and not physical bodies, it is argued, this scene must be occurring in heaven. When the text says that They came to life it does not mean that they received a bodily resurrection. It possibly means simply that they lived, since the aorist verb ἔζησαν (from ζάω, G2409) can readily be interpreted to be a statement of an event that occurred over a long period of time. (The verb for they reigned is also an aorist indicative and refers to an occurrence over a thousand years, so the verb they lived should have a similar meaning.)
On the other hand, some amillennial interpreters will take the verb ἔζησαν to mean they came to life in the sense of coming into heavenly existence in the presence of Christ and beginning to reign with him from heaven. According to this view, the phrase first resurrection (v. 5) refers to going to heaven to be with the Lord. This is not a bodily resurrection but a coming into the presence of God in heaven. In a similar way, when verse 5 says, The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended, this is understood to mean they did not come into Godís presence for judgment until the end of the thousand years. So in both verses 4 and 5, the phrase come to life means come into the presence of God. (Another amillennial view of first resurrection is that it refers to the resurrection of Christ, and to believersí participation in Christís resurrection through union with Christ.)
2. A second argument often proposed in favor of amillennialism is the fact that Scripture teaches only one resurrection when both believers and unbelievers will be raised, not two resurrections (a resurrection of believers before the millennium begins, and a resurrection of unbelievers to judgment after the end of the millennium). This is an important argument, because the premillennial view requires two separate resurrections, separated by a thousand years.
Evidence in favor of only one resurrection is found in at least three passages. Jesus says, The hour is coming when all who are in the tombs 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 judgment (John 5:28-29).
Here Jesus speaks of a single hour when both believing and unbelieving dead will come forth from the tombs. Similarly, when Paul is on trial before Felix he explains that he has a hope in God that his Jewish opponents also accept that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust (Acts 24:15).
Once again, he speaks of a single resurrection of both believers and unbelievers. Finally, we read in Daniel: And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt (Dan. 12:2).
3. The idea of glorified believers and sinners living on earth together is too difficult to accept. Berkhof says, It is impossible to understand how a part of the old earth and of sinful humanity can exist alongside a part of the new earth and of a humanity that is glorified. How can perfect saints in glorified bodies have communion with sinners in the flesh? How can glorified sinners live in this sin-laden atmosphere and amid scenes of death and decay?
4. If Christ comes in glory to reign on the earth, then how could people still persist in sin? Once Jesus is actually present in his resurrection body and reigning as King over the earth, does it not seem highly unlikely that people would still reject him, and that evil and rebellion would grow on the earth until eventually Satan could gather the nations for battle against Christ?
5. There seems to be no convincing purpose for such a millennium. Once the church age has ended and Christ has returned, then what is the reason for delaying the start of the eternal state?
6. In conclusion, amillennialists say that Scripture seems to indicate that all the major events yet to come before the eternal state will occur at once. Christ will return, there will be one resurrection of believers and unbelievers, the final judgment will take place, and a new heaven and new earth will be established. Then we will enter immediately into the eternal state, with no future millennium At this point we can respond briefly to these amillennialist arguments, though on some points a fuller answer will be developed in the arguments for premillennialism.
1. In response to the objection that only one passage teaches a future earthly millennium, several comments can be made:
a. The Bible only needs to say something once in order for it to be true and something that we must believe. The story of the confusion of languages at the tower of Babel, for example, is only taught in Genesis 11:1-9, yet we believe it to be true because Scripture teaches it. Similarly, even if only one passage taught a future millennial reign of Christ, we still should believe it.
Moreover, it is not surprising that this doctrine should be clearly taught in the book of Revelation. There was somewhat of a similar situation at the end of the Old Testament era. The entire Old Testament has no explicit teaching to the effect that the Messiah would come twice, once as a suffering Messiah who would die and rise again, earning our salvation, and then later as a conquering King to rule over the earth.
The first and second comings of Christ may be hinted at in the Old Testament prophets, but they are nowhere explicitly taught, because God did not deem it necessary to reveal that amount of detail about his plan of redemption before it happened. Similarly, in several of the Old and New Testament books leading up to the time of the writing of Revelation, there are hints of a future earthly millennium prior to the eternal state, but the explicit teaching about it was left until John wrote Revelation. Since Revelation is the New Testament book that most explicitly teaches about things yet future, it is appropriate that this more explicit revelation of the future millennium would be put at this point in the Bible.
b. In response to the allegation that the passage that teaches a millennium is obscure, premillennialists respond that they do not find it obscure at all. They argue that one advantage of the premillennial position is that it understands Revelation 20:1-6 in a straightforward sense: the text says that Satan will be bound and cast into the bottomless pit for a thousand years, and the premillennialist says a time is coming when Satan will be bound and cast into a bottomless pit for a thousand years.
The text speaks of a thousand-year reign of Christ, and the premillennialist expects a future thousand-year reign of Christ on earth. It speaks of those raised in the first resurrection, and the premillennialist says that there will be a first resurrection of believers who are blessed and holy (Rev. 20:6) and a second resurrection at the end of the thousand years for the rest of the dead (v. 5).
According to premillennialists, obscurity only enters the passage when an interpreter tries to find in it something other than such a straightforward interpretation.
c. Finally, many premillennialists argue that several other passages, especially in the Old Testament, require us to believe in a future period that is far greater than the present age but that still falls short of the eternal state (see Ps. 72:8-14; Isa. 11:2-9; 65:20; Zech. 14:6-21; 1 Cor. 15:24; Rev. 2:27; 12:5; 19:15). These passages, they say, portray a period that looks very much like the millennium as they understand it.
d. With respect to the interpretation of Revelation 20:1-6 as given by amillennialists, several difficulties arise. Although Matthew 12:28-29 and Luke 10:18 do speak of a binding of Satan during Jesusí earthly ministry, the binding of Satan described in Revelation 20 seems to be much more extensive than that.
The passage does not simply say that Satan is bound at this time, but speaks of the bottomless pit and says that the angel that came down from heaven threw him into the pit and shut it and sealed it over him that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years were ended (Rev. 20:2-3).
More than a mere binding or restriction of activity is in view here. The imagery of throwing Satan into a pit and shutting it and sealing it over him gives a picture of total removal from influence on the earth.
To say that Satan is now in a bottomless pit that is shut and sealed over simply does not fit the present world situation during the church age, in which Satanís activity is still very strong, in which he prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8), in which he can fill someoneís heart to lie to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:3), and in which what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God (1 Cor. 10:20).
Moreover, even after the binding of Satan during Jesusí ministry, it remains true that the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ (2 Cor. 4:4). This is why Christians still must contend not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places (Eph. 6:12).
This is because even during the church age, though the gospel is able to come with triumph and break down the forces of demonic opposition to the spread of the kingdom of God, nonetheless Satanís influence has not fully been removed from the world: The spirit of antichrist...is in the world already (1 John 4:3), and, in fact, We know that we are of God, and the whole world is in the power of the evil one (1 John 5:19).
This repeated theme in the New Testament, the theme of Satanís continual activity on earth throughout the church age, makes it extremely difficult to think that Satan has been thrown into the bottomless pit, and it has been shut and sealed over for a thousand years. That imagery can only speak of the total removal of Satanís active influence from the earth.
But what can be said with respect to the fact that amillennialists say that the binding and imprisonment of Satan in Revelation 20 is said to be that he should deceive the nations no more (v. 3)? Does that not simply mean that the gospel can now be preached effectively among the nations?
While the phrase might mean that, it seems more consistent with the use of the word deceived (Gk. πλανάω, G4414), especially in Revelation, to say that this is a deception that is now going on during the entire church age and that ends only when the millennium begins. Satan is called the one who deceives the whole world (Rev. 12:9 nasb), and the sorcery of Babylon is said to have deceived all nations before its judgment comes (Rev. 18:23).
Therefore it seems more appropriate to say that Satan is now still deceiving the nations, but at the beginning of the millennium this deceptive influence will be removed. There was an even greater deception before Christ came, but there is still significant deception that remains today.
The fact that John saw souls in his vision does not require that the scene be set in heaven. Since these souls are persons who then came to life in the first resurrection we should see these as people who obtained resurrection bodies and who began to reign on the earth.
Moreover, Revelation 20:1 indicates that the scene is focused on events on the earth, for it says, Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven. But if the angel came down from heaven, then he carries out his activity on the earth, and the entire scene is set on the earth.
Some amillennialists argue that the phrase came to life refers to a coming to heavenly existence or coming into the presence of God. But it must be asked, Where does the Greek term ζάω (G2409, live ) ever take that meaning? No other examples of that word in the New Testament take the sense, come into the presence of God. Moreover, amillennialist interpretations of the phrase first resurrection are unconvincing.
The word resurrection (Gk. ἀνάστασις, G414) never elsewhere means going to heaven or going into the presence of God, but rather signifies a bodily resurrection. This is the sense in which first-century readers would have understood the word. The other amillennialist view, which understands the first resurrection to be Christís resurrection (and our union with him) does not seem likely because those who came to life are the ones who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus (v. 4), which suggests a bodily resurrection after death
2. Does Scripture teach only one resurrection, so that believers and unbelievers will be raised at the same time? It is hard to accept this when we realize that Revelation 20 explicitly speaks about the first resurrection, thus implying that there will be a second resurrection as well. Speaking of those who came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years, we read, This is the first resurrection.
Blessed and holy is he who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power (vv. 5-6). The passage distinguishes those who share in this first resurrection and are blessed from others who do not share in it. They are the rest of the dead and the implication is that the second death (that is, facing final judgment and being condemned to eternal punishment away from the presence of God) does have power over them, and they will experience it. But if this passage clearly teaches a first resurrection, and the fact that the rest of the dead will come to life at the end of a thousand years, then there is clear teaching on two separate resurrections here in Revelation 20.
As for the other passages that amillennialists claim to support the view that there is only one resurrection, it must be said that those passages do not exclude the idea of two resurrections, but they simply do not specify whether or not the resurrection of believers and unbelievers will be separated in time.
In fact, Jesusí statement in John 5 does hint at the possibility of two resurrections. He says that those who are in the tombs will come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment (John 5:28-29). In this way Jesus in fact speaks of two different resurrections
As for Daniel 12:2, it simply says that those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt, but it does not specify whether this will happen simultaneously or at different times. It simply says that both types of people will be raised.
The same is true of Acts 24:15, where Paul says there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust. This affirms that both types of people will be raised from the dead, but it does not exclude the possibility that this would happen at different times.
All of these verses, in the absence of Revelation 20:5-6, might or might not be speaking of a single future time of resurrection. But with the explicit teaching of Revelation 20:5-6 about two resurrections, these verses must be understood to refer to the future certainty of a resurrection for each type of person, without specifying that those resurrections will be separated in time.
3. The idea of glorified believers and sinners living on earth together during the millennium does sound strange to us now, but it is certainly not impossible for God to bring this about. We must realize that Jesus lived on the earth with a glorified body for forty days after his resurrection, and apparently there were many other Old Testament saints who lived with glorified bodies on earth during that time as well (Matt. 27:53).
It will indeed be a kind of world situation that is far different and far more God-glorifying than the world is now, but it does not seem that we are justified in asserting that God could not or would not bring about such a state of affairs. Certainly he could do it, and several passages seem to indicate that he has a good purpose and intention of doing it as well.
4. It is certainly not impossible that evil and secret rebellion could persist on the earth in spite of the bodily presence of Christ reigning as King. We must remember that Judas lived with Jesus on the closest terms for three years, and still betrayed him.
Moreover, many of the Pharisees saw Jesusí miracles, and even saw him raising people from the dead, and still did not believe. In fact, even when the disciples were in the presence of the glorified Lord Jesus, we read that some doubted (Matt. 28:17).
Such persistent unbelief in the very presence of Christ is hard to understand, but we must remember that Satan himself fell from an exalted position in the presence of God in heaven. When the amillennialists object that people could not persist in sin in the presence of Christís bodily reign on the earth, their position simply fails to realize the deep-seated and highly irrational nature of sin. It also fails fully to reckon with the fact that even massive proof and undeniable evidence cannot compel genuine conversion.
Genuine repentance and faith is brought about by the enabling and persuasive work of the Holy Spirit in peopleís hearts. Such is the irrational nature of sin that those who are dead in trespasses and sins will often persist in rebellion and unbelief even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary
This is not to say that no one will be converted to Christ during the millennium. No doubt millions of people will become Christians during that time, and the influence of the reign of Christ will permeate into every aspect of every society in the world. Yet at the same time it is not at all difficult to understand how evil and rebellion will grow simultaneously.
5. God may have several purposes in mind for a future millennium, not all of which may now be clear to us. But certainly such a millennium would show the outworking of Godís good purposes in the structures of society especially the structures of the family and civil government. During the church age, the good purposes of God are primarily seen in individual lives and the blessings that come to those who believe in Christ.
To some extent now (and to a greater extent in times of revival) this affects civil government and educational institutions and corporations, and to a larger extent it affects the family. But in none of these structures are Godís good purposes manifested to the extent they could be, showing Godís great wisdom and goodness not only in his plans for individuals but also for societal structures.
In the millennium the beauty of Godís wisdom will show forth to his glory from all of these societal structures. Moreover, the millennium will further vindicate Godís righteousness. The fact that some continue in sin and unbelief will show that sin rebellion against God is not due to an evil society or to a bad environment. It is due to the sinfulness of the hearts of men.
Thus the justice of God will be fully vindicated in the day of final judgment. With Satan bound for a thousand years, the fact that sin can persist will also show that the ultimate blame for sin is not demonic influence in peopleís lives but deep-rooted sinfulness in peopleís hearts. Third, the entire scope of the Bible reveals to us that it is Godís good pleasure to unfold his purposes and reveal more and more of his glory gradually over time.
From the calling of Abraham to the birth of Isaac, the sojourn in Egypt and the exodus, the establishment of the people in the promised land, the Davidic kingdom and the divided monarchy, the exile and return with the rebuilding of the temple, the preservation of a faithful remnant, and finally the coming of Jesus in the flesh, Godís purposes were increasingly seen to be glorious and wonderful.
Even in Jesusí life the progressive revealing of his glory took thirty-three years, culminating in the last three years of his life. Then in Jesusí death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, the completion of our redemption was accomplished. Yet the spread of the church throughout all nations has now occupied over 1,900 years, and we do not know how long it is to continue. All this is to say that Godís way is not to bring to realization all of his good purposes at once, but to unfold them gradually over time.
This is so even in the individual lives of Christians, who grow daily in grace and in fellowship with God and in likeness to Christ. Therefore it would not be surprising if, before the eternal state, God instituted one final step in the progressive unfolding of the history of redemption. It would serve to increase his glory as men and angels look on in amazement at the wonder of Godís wisdom and plan.
Third, the entire scope of the Bible reveals to us that it is Godís good pleasure to unfold his purposes and reveal more and more of his glory gradually over time. From the calling of Abraham to the birth of Isaac, the sojourn in Egypt and the exodus, the establishment of the people in the promised land, the Davidic kingdom and the divided monarchy, the exile and return with the rebuilding of the temple, the preservation of a faithful remnant, and finally the coming of Jesus in the flesh, Godís purposes were increasingly seen to be glorious and wonderful.
Even in Jesusí life the progressive revealing of his glory took thirty-three years, culminating in the last three years of his life. Then in Jesusí death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven, the completion of our redemption was accomplished.
Yet the spread of the church throughout all nations has now occupied over 1,900 years, and we do not know how long it is to continue. All this is to say that Godís way is not to bring to realization all of his good purposes at once, but to unfold them gradually over time. This is so even in the individual lives of Christians, who grow daily in grace and in fellowship with God and in likeness to Christ.
Therefore it would not be surprising if, before the eternal state, God instituted one final step in the progressive unfolding of the history of redemption. It would serve to increase his glory as men and angels look on in amazement at the wonder of Godís wisdom and plan.
6. Finally, a major objection to amillennialism must continue to be the fact that it can propose no really satisfying explanation of Revelation 20
C. A Consideration of the Arguments for Postmillennialism The arguments in favor of postmillennialism are as follows:
1. The Great Commission leads us to expect that the gospel will go forth in power and eventually result in a largely Christian world: Jesus explicitly said, All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age (Matt. 28:18-20).
Since Christ has all authority in heaven and on earth, and since he promises to be with us in the fulfillment of this commission, we would expect that it would transpire without hindrance and eventually triumph in the whole world.
2. Parables of the gradual growth of the kingdom indicate that it eventually will fill the earth with its influence. Here postmillennialists point to the following: Another parable he put before them, saying,
"The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches." (Matt. 13:31-32)
We can also note the following verse: He told them another parable.
"The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened Ď" (Matt. 13:33).
According to postmillennialists both of these parables indicate that the kingdom will grow in influence until it permeates and in some measure transforms the entire world.
3. Postmillennialists will also argue that the world is becoming more Christian. The church is growing and spreading throughout the world, and even when it is persecuted and oppressed it grows remarkably by the power of God At this point we must make a very significant distinction, however.
The millennium that postmillennialists hold to is very different from the millennium the premillennialists talk about. In a sense, they are not even discussing the same topic. While premillennialists talk about a renewed earth with Jesus Christ physically present and reigning as King, together with glorified believers in resurrection bodies, postmillennialists are simply talking about an earth with many, many Christians influencing society.
They do not envisage a millennium consisting of a renewed earth or glorified saints or Christ present in bodily form to reign (for they think that these things will only occur after Christ returns to inaugurate the eternal state). Therefore the entire discussion of the millennium is more than simply a discussion of the sequence of events surrounding it. It also involves a significant difference over the nature of this period of time itself.
In fact, though I am not aware if anyone has done this, it would not be impossible for someone to be a postmillennialist and a premillennialist at the same time, with two different senses of the term millennium. Someone could conceivably be a postmillennialist and think that the gospel will grow in influence until the world is largely Christian, and that then Christ will return and set up a literal earthly reign, raising believers from the dead to reign with him in glorified bodies.
Or, on the other hand, a very optimistic premillennialist could conceivably adopt many of the postmillennialist teachings about the increasingly Christian nature of this present age In response to the postmillennialist arguments, the following points may be made:
1. The Great Commission does indeed speak of the authority that is given into Christís hand, but that does not necessarily imply that Christ will use that authority to bring about the conversion of the majority of the population of the world. To say that Christís authority is great is simply another way of saying that Godís power is infinite, which no one will deny.
But the question is the extent to which Christ will use his power to bring about the numerical growth of the church. We may assume that he will use it to a very full extent and will bring about worldwide Christianization, but such an assumption is merely that-an assumption. It is not based on any specific evidence in the Great Commission or in other texts that talk about Christís authority and power in this present age
2. The parables of the mustard seed and the leaven do tell us that the kingdom of God will gradually grow from something very small to something very large, but they do not tell us the extent to which the kingdom will grow.
For example, the parable of the mustard seed does not tell us that the tree grew so that it spread throughout the whole earth. And the parable of the leaven simply talks about gradual growth that permeates society (as the church has already done), but it says nothing about the degree or effect that that influence has (it does not tell us, for example, whether in the end 5 percent of the loaf was leaven and 95 percent bread dough, or 20 percent leaven and 80 percent bread, or 60 percent leaven and 40 percent bread, and so forth).
It is simply pressing the parable beyond its intended purpose to attempt to make it say more than that the kingdom will grow gradually and eventually have an influence on every society in which it is planted.
3. In response to the argument that the world is becoming more Christian, it must be said that the world is also becoming more evil. No student of history or modern society will argue that mankind has made much progress through the centuries in overcoming the depth of perversity and the extent of immorality that remain in peopleís hearts.
Indeed, modernization in western societies in the twentieth century has often been accompanied not by moral improvement but by an unprecedented level of drug abuse, marital infidelity, pornography, homosexuality, rebellion against authority, superstition (in astrology and the New Age movement), materialism, greed, theft, and falsehood in speech.
Even among professing Christians there is repeated evidence of dismaying imperfection in the Christian life, especially in the realms of personal morality and depth of intimacy with God. In places where Bible-believing Christians comprise large segments of the population, still nothing like an earthly millennial kingdom occurs It is true that the growth of the church as a percentage of world population has been remarkable in recent decades, and we should be greatly encouraged by this.
It is possible that we will someday see a far greater influence of genuine Christianity upon many societies, and if that occurred, it would make the postmillennial position seem more plausible. But such events could also be understood within a premillennial or amillennial framework, so the final decision regarding these competing positions must still be made by interpreting the relevant biblical texts.
4. Finally, we should note that there are several New Testament passages that seem to give explicit denial to the postmillennial position. Jesus said,
"Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Matt. 7:13-14).
Rather than teaching that a majority of the world will become Christians, Jesus seems here to be saying that those who are saved will be few in contrast to the many who travel toward eternal destruction. Similarly, Jesus asks,
"When the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth? (Luke 18:8)
- a question that suggests that the earth will not be filled with those who believe, but will be dominated rather by those who do not have faith. Contrary to the view that the world will get better and better as the influence of the church grows, Paul predicts that before Christ returns the rebellion will come and
"the man of lawlessness will be revealed, the son of perdition who takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God (2 Thess. 2:3-4).
When writing to Timothy about the last days, Paul says,
"In the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it." (2 Tim. 3:1-5)
He says further:
"All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceivers and deceived ... the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths." (2 Tim. 3:12-13; 4:3-4)
Finally, and perhaps most conclusively, Matthew 24:15-31 speaks of a great tribulation that will precede the time of Christís return:
"For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been shortened, no human being would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened....Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken; then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory." (Matt. 24:21-30)
This passage pictures not a Christianized world but a world of great suffering and evil, a great tribulation that exceeds all previous periods of suffering on the earth. It does not say that the great majority of the world will welcome Christ when he comes, but rather that when the sign of the Son of man appears in heaven, then
"all the tribes of the earth will mourn (Matt. 24:30).
Since Matthew 24 is such a difficult passage from the postmillennialist perspective, there have been several attempts to explain it not as a prediction of events that will occur just prior to Christís second coming, but rather as something that was mainly fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70
To sustain this interpretation, postmillennialists make most of the elements of Matthew 24:29-31 symbolic the sun and moon being darkened, the stars falling from heaven, and the powers of the heavens being shaken are not to be understood as literal events, but as imagery for Godís coming in judgment.
Similar imagery for judgment is said to be found in Ezekiel 32:7; Joel 2:10; and Amos 8:9-but these passages simply speak of judgments of darkness, and do not mention the stars falling from heaven or the powers of the heavens being shaken.
...it is far from obvious that these passages are merely apocalyptic imagery for judgment on Jerusalem Moreover, the interpretation that sees these as merely symbolic statements grows more difficult as the statement of Jesus continues, for he does not only talk about signs in the sun, moon, and stars, but he says
"immediately after that, then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven...and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory (Matt. 24:30).
... when Jesus elsewhere speaks of his coming on the clouds, he speaks not of a coming to God the Father in heaven, but a coming to people on earth:
Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, every one who pierced him; and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him (Rev. 1:7).
...we who are alive shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thess. 4:17)
. When Christ comes on the clouds of glory with great power and authority, he comes to reign over the earth, and this is the sense of Matthew 24:30-31.
...factors that we know from other texts to be connected with Christís return (cosmic signs, Christís coming with power, the loud trumpet call, the angels gathering the elect) provides a cumulative case for believing that Christís second coming, not just a symbolic representation of his receiving authority, is in view here.
And if Matthew 24 talks about Christís second coming, then it talks about his coming just after a period of great tribulation, not after a millennium of peace and righteousness has been established on the earth.
Finally, all of the passages indicating that Christ could return soon and that we must be ready for him to return at any time must be considered a significant argument against postmillennialism as well. For if Christ could return at any time, and we are to be ready for his return, then the long period required for the establishment of the millennium on earth before Christ returns simply cannot be thought a persuasive theory.
D. A Consideration of the Arguments for Premillennialism.
The position advocated in this book is historic premillennialism. The arguments against the premillennial position have essentially been presented in the arguments for amillennialism and postmillennialism, and will therefore not be repeated again here in a separate section, but incidental objections to these arguments will be considered along the way.
These considerations combine to make a case in favor of premillennialism. If we are convinced of this position, it really is an incidental question whether the thousand-year period is thought to be a literal thousand years or simply a long period of time of indeterminate duration. And though we may not have much clarity on all the details of the nature of the millennium, we can be reasonably certain that there will be a future earthly reign of Christ that will be markedly different from this present age.
E. The Time of the Great Tribulation
For those who are persuaded by the arguments in favor of premillennialism, one further question must be decided: Will Christ return before or after the great tribulation? The expression great tribulation itself comes from Matthew 24:21 (and parallels), where Jesus says,
"For then there will be great tribulation such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be." Matthew 24:21
Historic premillennialism believes that Christ will return after that tribulation, for the passage continues,
"Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened...then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory (Matt. 24:29-30)
But, as explained above, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a variety of premillennialism that holds to a pretribulational coming of Christ became popular. This is often called a pretribulation rapture view, because it holds that when Christ first returns the church will be raptured or snatched up into heaven to be with him. The arguments for such a pretribulation rapture are as follows
1. The entire period of the tribulation will be a time of the outpouring of Godís wrath on all the earth. Therefore it would not be appropriate for Christians to be on the earth at that time.
2. Jesus promises in Revelation 3:10, I will keep you from the hour of trial which is coming on the whole world to try those who dwell upon the earth. This passage indicates that the church will be taken out of the world before that hour of trial comes.
3. If Christ returns after the tribulation and defeats all his enemies, then where will the unbelievers come from who are necessary to populate the millennial kingdom? The pretribulation position, however, envisages thousands of Jewish believers who have become Christians during the tribulation and who will go into the millennial kingdom in nonglorified bodies.
4. This view makes it possible to believe that Christ could come at any moment (his coming before the tribulation) and yet that many signs must be fulfilled before he comes (his coming after the tribulation, when the signs will be fulfilled). Although it is not specifically an argument in favor of a pretribulation position, it must also be noted that pretribulationists then view the teaching about the tribulation in Matthew 24 and the warnings and encouragements given to believers in that situation as applying to Jewish believers during the tribulation, and not to the church generally In response to these arguments, the following points may be made:
1. It is inconsistent with the New Testament descriptions of the tribulation to say that all the suffering that occurs during that time is specifically the result of the wrath of God. Much of the suffering is due to the fact that wickedness is multiplied (Matt. 24:12) and the fact that persecution of the church and opposition from Satan greatly increases during this period. Of course all Christians (whether Gentile or Jewish believers) will avoid the wrath of God at all times, but this does not mean they will avoid all suffering, even in times of intense hardship.
2. The fact that Jesus tells faithful believers in the church in Philadelphia (Rev. 3:10) that he will keep them from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world is not strong enough evidence to say that the entire church will be taken out of the world before the tribulation. First, this statement is made to one specific church (Philadelphia) and should not be applied to the whole church at some future point in history.
Moreover, the hour of trial which is coming on the whole world need not refer to the time of the great tribulation, but more likely refers to a time of great suffering and persecution that would come upon the entire Roman Empire or the entire inhabited world. Finally, the promise that the church in Philadelphia will be guarded does not imply that they will be taken out of the world, but simply that they will be kept faithful and will be guarded from being harmed by that period of suffering and testing.
3. It is no argument for the pretribulation view to say that there must be some people in nonglorified bodies who will enter the millennium, because (on a posttribulational view) when Christ comes at the end of the tribulation he will defeat all the forces arrayed against him, but that does not mean he will kill or annihilate all of them. Many will simply surrender without trusting Christ, and will thus enter the millennium as unbelievers. And during the entire period of the millennium no doubt many will be converted to Christ and become believers as well.
4. The pretribulational view is not the only one consistent with the ideas that Christ could come back at any time that there are signs that precede his return. The position presented in the previous chapter - that it is unlikely but possible that the signs have been fulfilled - is also consistent with these ideas.
But it must be said that behind this argument of pretribulationists is probably a more fundamental concern: the desire to preserve a distinction between the church (which they think will be taken up into heaven to be with Christ) and Israel (which they think will constitute the people of God on earth during the tribulation and then during the millennial kingdom).
But, as we noted in an earlier chapter, the New Testament does not support a distinction of this kind between Israel and the church. Hence it does not imply a need to see a distinction between these groups at the time of the tribulation and the millennium. There is a variation of the pretribulation rapture position that is known as the midtribulation rapture view.
The Case for the Mid-Seventieth-Week Rapture Position.
He sees the tribulation as separated into two halves. The first three and a half years are characterized by the wrath of man, and the church is present at that time. The second three and a half years are characterized by the wrath of God, and during that time the church is absent from the earth. The primary argument from Scripture to support a midtribulational rapture is the fact that in Daniel 7:25, 9:27, and 12:7 and 11, as well as in Revelation 12:14, the seven days or times indicated are cut in half, mentioning the interval of three and a half times or three and a half days in a symbolic week, thus indicating a period of three and a half years, after which Godís people will be rescued from tribulation.
Another argument in favor of this position is that it gives a heightened sense of expectancy of Christís return, since three and a half years is a shorter period of time than seven years. However, though the passages in Daniel do speak of an interruption of the seventieth week which Daniel predicts for the future, they do not give any clear indication that mid-way through the week believers will be removed from the earth. It is also hard to see that the expectation of a three-and-a-half-year tribulation provides a much greater sense of imminence than does the expectation of a seven-year tribulation. Finally, some objections to the pretribulational rapture position can be stated in the form of arguments in favor of the posttribulational rapture view (the historic premillennial view that Christ will return after a period of tribulation on the earth):
1. The New Testament nowhere clearly says that the church will be taken out of the world before the tribulation. If this significant event were to happen, we might at least expect that explicit teaching to that effect would be found in the New Testament.
Certainly Jesus tells us that he will come again and take us to be with himself (John 14:3), and Paul tells us that we shall be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thess. 4:17), and that we shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye and receive resurrection bodies (1 Cor. 15:51-52), but each of these passages has been understood by believers throughout history as speaking not of a secret rapture of the church before the tribulation, but of a very visible public rapture (or taking up ) of the church to be with Christ just a few moments prior to his coming to earth with them to reign during the millennial kingdom (or, on the amillennial view, during the eternal state).
Moreover, it is very difficult to understand 1 Thessalonians 4:17, the only passage that explicitly speaks of the fact that the church will be caught up (or raptured), to speak of the idea of a secret coming. It says,
"The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangelís call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God," (1 Thess. 4:16).
Of these words Leon Morris rightly says, It may be that from this he intends us to understand that the rapture will take place secretly, and that no one except the saints themselves will know what is going on. But one would hardly gather this from his words. It is difficult to see how he could more plainly describe something that is open and public. The doctrine of a pretribulation rapture is an inference from several passages, all of which are disputed. Moreover, even if one believes this doctrine to be in Scripture, it is taught with such little clarity that it was not discovered until the nineteenth century. This does not make it seem likely.
2. The tribulation is quite clearly linked with the Lordís return in some passages. First, the loud trumpet call to gather the elect in Matthew 24:31, the sound of the trumpet of God in 1 Thessalonians 4:16, and the last trumpet at which our bodies are changed in 1 Corinthians 15:51-52, all seem to be the same trumpet-the last trumpet that is blown just before the millennium.
If it is indeed the last trumpet (1 Cor. 15:52), then it is hard to see how another loud trumpet call (Matt. 24:31) could follow it seven years later. In addition, Matthew 24 is very difficult to understand as referring not to the church but to Jewish people who would be saved during the tribulation.
Jesus is addressing his disciples (Matt. 24:1-4) and warning them of persecution and suffering to come. He tells them of the great tribulation to come, and then says that immediately after the tribulation of those days cosmic signs will appear and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory (Matt. 24:30). But is it likely that Jesus, in saying all these things to his disciples intended his words to apply not to the church but only to a future earthly kingdom of Jewish people who would be converted during the tribulation? How could the disciples have known that he had such a meaning in mind? Nor does it seem likely that the disciples are here as representatives of a future Jewish kingdom and not as representatives of the church, with whose founding they were so integrally connected as to be its foundation (Eph. 2:20).
3. Finally, the New Testament does not seem to justify the idea of two separate returns of Christ (once for his church before the tribulation and then seven years later with his church to bring judgment on unbelievers).
Once again, no such view is explicitly taught in any passage, but it is simply an inference drawn from differences between various passages that describe Christís return from different perspectives. But it is not at all difficult to see these passages as referring to a single event occurring at one time.
It seems best to conclude, with the great majority of the church throughout history, that the church will go through the time of tribulation predicted by Jesus. We would probably not have chosen this path for ourselves, but the decision was not ours to make. And if God wills that any of us now alive remain on earth until the time of this great tribulation, then we should heed Peterís words,
"If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory and of God rests upon you (1 Peter 4:14),
"Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps." (1 Peter 2:21).
This idea that Christians should be prepared to endure suffering is also seen in Paulís words that
"we are fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him (Rom. 8:17.
And we may remember that from the time of Noah to the time of the martyrdom of the early apostles, it has frequently been Godís way to bring his people through suffering to glory, for thus he did even with his own Son.
"For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering (Heb. 2:10).
It is from the Savior who himself has suffered more than any of his children will ever suffer that we have the admonition, Do not fear what you are about to suffer....Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life (Rev. 2:10).
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