Four Views of End-Time Bible Prophecy Part IV: Historic Premillennialism

Having looked thus far at both the amillennial and postmillennial positions on end-time Bible prophecy, we will now over the next two studies consider the position known as premillennialism. As the word itself hints, pre-millennialism is the position that maintains that Jesus Christ will return before (hence the “pre” in the word) the millennial period outlined in Revelation 20:1 – 4. This view argues that Jesus Christ will indeed establish a real, kingdom-reign on this earth following His Second Advent. The locale of this kingdom will be the very same earth that we inhabit today. It will be a real, literal, physical kingdom under the personal reign of Jesus. Now, there are two different forms of premillennialism, historic premillennialism, which we will consider in this study, and dispensational premillennialism, which we will look at next time. The two are similar enough that in both this study and the next, we must unavoidably make reference to both. But they are different enough to merit two separate studies.

Historic premillennialism takes biblical prophecy regarding the end-times seriously! It understands Christ’s reign in Revelation 20:1-6 to involve a literal earthly government established by Jesus Christ following His return to this earth. Historic premillennialism (let’s call it HP for short!) understands the binding of Satan in verses 2-3 as a real incarceration of Satan that restricts his access to what is taking place on earth. It’s not simply a taking away of his power to deceive the nations (as amillennialist Anthony Hoekema argues) but is a very real “locking up” of Satan in a place called the abyss. This will indeed prevent Satan from being able to deceive the nations who are enjoying 1,000 years of peace and righteousness upon the earth, but also appears – based on the text itself – to actually prevent Satan from having any access to human civilization on earth during that time in any way. Following the 1,000 years, Satan will be released and will be allowed to deceive the nations one last time before being finally sentenced to the lake of fire “forever and ever” (Revelation 20:7-10). This will be followed by the final judgment, and then the new heaven and the new earth which will be the everlasting home of the righteous, free from all sin, death, and sorrow.

HP understands that prior to the Second Coming of Jesus and His millennial reign, there will be a time of great apostasy and tribulation upon the earth which will feature the rise of the beast (also called the Antichrist) and the false prophet,[1] as detailed in Revelation 13. Israel, the nations, and the church will all experience this time of tribulation and the reign of the beast which is to unfold upon the earth in the days prior to the Second Coming. In this we see a key mark of HP: Generally speaking, historic premillennialism understands the Rapture of the church (1 Thess. 4:13-18) as occurring in conjunction with Christ’s Second Coming to this earth at the end of the tribulation. In this there is no “pre-tribulation” Rapture that removes Christians from the earth prior to the tribulation. Generally speaking, historic premillennialism is post-tribulational as it pertains to the Rapture.

It is important to stress that unlike amillennialism, the millennial reign of Christ is not merely a spiritual government or reign. And unlike postmillennialism, the millennial reign of Christ on earth will not unfold in the present church era but will be an apocalyptic breaking-in of the kingdom of heaven upon the earth in conjunction with Christ’s Second Coming. Human progress and the preaching of the Gospel will not bring in the millennium. Christ Himself will usher it in upon His return.

Having said that, historic premillennialists affirm an “already/not yet type of eschatology. This phrase is meant to convey what they perceive as a dual aspect of Christ’s reign and the kingdom of God. The “already” reflects HP’s understanding that the reign of Jesus Christ as Messiah has already begun.[2] In this sense, Christ presently reigns as Messiah in the present era as he is seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven. This is related to the idea in HP that the church is the “new Israel.”[3] What this means is that historic premillennialists do not believe that the nation of Israel will be restored as a distinct body of believers that stands entirely distinct from the church with a unique role and purpose in God’s plans that they fulfill apart from any participation in the church.[4] HP understands any future salvation of Israel as an incorporation of that nation into the one church.[5] The church itself, and as a whole – including ethnic Israel, is a “new Israel.” As we’ll see next time, this is a major difference between this form of premillennialism and dispensational premillennialism (which we will call DP), which draws a notable distinction between Israel and the church in a way that precludes the church from being a “new Israel,” but rather renders it a unique grouping of believers with a purpose entirely distinct from Israel. In DP, Israel’s future involves both their salvation and their restoration as a unique people with a purpose distinct from that of the church, leaving the church as “the church” and Israel as “Israel” (so that the church never becomes a “new Israel”). This may seem like a minor yet complex detail, but it actually has massive ramifications for the interpretation of end-time biblical prophecy. We’ll get into this a little deeper next time.

The term historic in HP distinguishes this system of interpretation from its dispensational “cousin.” Indeed, HP is also known as classic premillennialism.[6] The link is often made between modern HP and the premillennialism of the early church. Indeed, premillennialism finds notable precedent in the early writings of the church fathers.[7] Tertullian (c. 155- c. 240 AD) wrote: “But we do confess that a kingdom is promised to us upon the earth, although before heaven, only in another state of existence; inasmuch as it will be after the resurrection for a thousand years in the divinely-built city of Jerusalem, let down from heaven…”[8]  Other early premillennialists include Papias, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Hippolytus, and Lactantius.[9] It should be noted that while premillennialism was widespread among the Fathers of the church, the Patristic writings as a whole do not reveal a unanimously held, unified eschatological system.

Premillennialism began to wane with the rise of the allegorical approach to interpreting the Scriptures as championed by Origen (c. 184 – c. 254) and Augustine (354 – 430). Origen’s preferred method of Biblical interpretation was allegorical, which was the standard method of interpretation in Alexandria, Egypt where Origen was probably born.[10] Origen took an allegorical approach to interpreting prophecies concerning Judaea and Jerusalem, and saw them as referring to a spiritual (non-literal) kingdom.[11] What the early premillennialists saw as a future literal reign of Jesus on earth, Origen understood as the present church era, which for him extended from Adam onward.[12] Simply put, Origen rejected the idea of a future distinct, literal, millennial reign of Christ on earth. This “amillennialism” (i.e. no literal millennium) was then popularized by Augustine (Ryrie, Basic Theology, 520) who had a major influence on the medieval theology that would characterize the next several hundred years of Church history. Thus, premillennialism came into eclipse.

Aspects of both amillennialism and postmillennialism can be found in medieval Christianity. In turn, it was amillennialism that dominated the churches and theology of the Protestant Reformation. There was some recovery of the literal interpretation of Scripture by the Reformers, but in the area of eschatology, they retained their allegorical hermeneutic which kept them quite firmly in the amillennial tradition. According to Dr. Mark Hitchcock, amillennialism is presently the prevailing view of both the Greek Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, and a significant portion of Protestantism.[13] Theological considerations leading to modern postmillennialism began to pick up steam in Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries. Postmillennial theology was the prevailing eschatological view in Colonial America, as we saw last time. Premillennialism – perhaps much like the doctrine of justification by faith – ultimately needed to be rediscovered by the church on a large scale after centuries of obscurity in the shadow of amillennialism and postmillennialism. That “rediscovery” would occur in a significant way in the 19th century, particularly among Protestants in the Trans-Atlantic English-speaking world of Britain and North America.

Since the revival of premillennialism in the 19th century (and in fact the 20th century) is closely related to dispensationalism premillennialism, we will look a bit closer at the historical revival of premillennialism, and the reasons for it, next time. Indeed, it was dispensationalism premillennialism that ultimately came to be the predominant expression of premillennialism in the 20th century, particularly in the United States. Many of the best known popular writers on end-time prophecy in the 20th and 21st century were and are dispensational premillennialists. One of the largest non-denominational seminaries in America – Dallas Theological Seminary – has historically been dispensational in its orientation, and has produced influential writers, teachers, pastors, and theologians with a dispensational bend. Nevertheless, not all modern premillannialists have been dispensationalists. Indeed, historic premillennialism did have a notable representative in the 20th century in the person of George Eldon Ladd (1911 – 1982) who taught at Fuller Theological Seminary in California. We will continue our look at premillennialism next time, shifting our focus to dispensational premillennialism, while having a few more things to say about historic premillennialism. Two major points of debate between these two systems are also perhaps the two most contested and controversial themes in Biblical prophecy: The Rapture of the church, and the restoration of the nation of Israel!

 

[1] see, https://www.blueletterbible.org/faq/mill.cfm

[2] George Eldon Ladd, “Historic Premillennialism,” in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, ed. Robert G. Clouse (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 31

[3] Richard S. Hess, “The Future Written in the Past: The Old Testament and the Millennium,” in A Case for Historic Premillennialism: An Alternative to “Left Behind” Eschatology, eds. Blomberg & Sung, 35

[4] http://mikevlach.blogspot.ca/2011/07/how-does-historic-premillennialism.html

[5] Ibid.

[6] Craig L. Blomberg & Sung Wook Chung, eds., A Case for Historic Premillennialism: An Alternative to “Left Behind” Eschatology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), xii

[7] Ibid., xix

[8] Tertullian, “Against Marcion,” Book III, Chapter 25, The Catholic Encyclopedia, New Advent,  http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/03123.htm

[9] Robert G. Clouse, ed., The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1997) 9

[10] Alan L. Hayes, ed., Church and Society in Documents: 100-600 A.D. (Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc., 1995), 97, 99.

[11] Robert L. Wilken, “Early Christian Chiliasm, Jewish Messianism, and the idea of the Holy Land.” Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl, HTR 79:1-3 (1986), 298-307

[12] Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1999), 520.

[13] Mark Hitchcock, The End: A Complete Overview of Bible Prophecy and the End of Days (Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.), 403.

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