By Alex V. Wilson
It is deplorable that such topics have often occasioned bitter controversy and even church-splits. That should never be. Sincere Christians who hold differing interpretations should be able to love and respect each other and cooperate in God’s service despite disagreements. Otherwise Satan wins great victories by sowing strife among the Lord’s people. “Divide and conquer” is one of his favorite strategies. I know of congregations with premills, a-mills, and people who don’t know the difference between a millennium and a millipede—and yet they work together because of unity in Christ.
Being correct about the millennium is certainly not necessary for salvation. I can’t find any verse that says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and premillennialism, and you will be saved.”
Nor is believing correctly about the millennium imperative for strong Christian character and service (though “the blessed hope” of Christ’s coming definitely is). There were strong Christians for decades before John wrote Revelation. Paul never got to read it, and if you asked him, “What about the 1,000 years?” he might have replied, “What are you talking about?” (Yet if you’d asked him about the kingdom of God and the coming to Christ, I believe his answers would have fit into a premill framework.) But since all scripture is God-breathed and profitable for us, understanding Christ’s millennial reign is a blessing to be desired. May God give us balance.
I take the premill view despite the fact that there are some extremist premills–and even some crackpots! (Of course they might call me that.) I get discouraged by those premills who love to indulge in constant speculation, sensationalism and sometimes date-setting. Some are overly literal in their interpretations, it seems to me. But after all, there are extremist amills and postmills as well (crackpots too?). In most doctrinal disagreements, some weirdo can be found and used by the other side as a reason to reject his viewpoint. But that’s an unreasonable and even dangerous practice. We should follow truth, not just seek to win debates.
I take the premill view despite the fact that some wonderful Christians and outstanding scholars take other views. I have gained helpful insights from such believers, and also been blessed by their faith, hope and love. I even benefit from their ideas which I end up rejecting, for they stimulate me to keep investigating the Scripture and my own beliefs. But remember that there have been numerous fine premill Christians, authors and scholars too, including Barton Stone, Moses Lard, James A. Harding, and R. H. Boll (those four from the Stone-Campbell movement1) plus George Mueller, Charles Spurgeon, H. I. Ironside, Billy Graham, Carl Henry, Erich Sauer, John Walvoord, Merrill Tenney, George Ladd, Marvin Rosenthal and Robert Van Kampen–to give just a sampling.
I take the premill view despite a number of strong accusations against it. For I know by experience that premills do not believe many things we are said to believe. I know many premills, but have never heard one of them teach that there will be a second chance for salvation after death (though many chances before then). Likewise, most if not all premills do not believe that we Christians are not in God’s kingdom now, nor that the Great Commission isn’t in effect now, nor that the first coming of Christ was a failure. We do not believe that Christ’s church was an “after-thought,” “an interlude filling the gap,” or “an accident.” We do not believe that “when human beings rejected Christ, God settled for the church as second best.” We do not believe that New Testament Christianity was “a stop-gap measure, defective and incomplete” nor that “new dispensations became necessary as God’s plans were frustrated.” But at various times and places we have been, and in some places still are, accused of believing such stuff.
A number of premills, including myself, believe in historic (or “classic”) premillennial-ism rather than dispensational premillennialism. Many (but not all) dispensationalists believe the following, while historic premills do not believe them: The “postponed kingdom” theory—that Jesus would have set up His kingdom at His first coming, but since most of the Jews refused Him, He postponed it till His return. That the sermon on the mount is not for the church, at least not as a rule of life. That Jesus will certainly, without a doubt, rapture the church “before the great tribulation,2 and thus seven years before His glorious coming.” That Jews who were saved before the church began or will be saved during the “great tribulation” will always be God’s earthly people–even throughout eternity, but that the church is God’s heavenly people, and the two groups will always be distinct. That the millennium will be more like the Old Covenant than the New (that is, having animal sacrifices, sin offerings, limited priesthood based on human ancestry, sacramental circumcision, etc.; see Ezek. 44-46 for reasons some believe this).
1. I take the classic premill view because it seems to me to fit the Biblical “philosophy of history.” Postmills (Alexander Campbell mainly held that view, though at times he sounded very premillennial) have highly optimistic expectations about the progress that the Gospel and the Church will make throughout history. They think most people worldwide will be converted to Christ and thus to a large extent will christianize all societies and cultures–all before Christ returns.3 Both premills and amills have much more pessimistic views about this. What does God’s Word teach?
First, it seems to me that Matt. 24 gives our Savior’s preview of this present age, with a double focus. Of course much was pre-filled at the destruction of the temple by Rome’s army in 70 A.D. (see vss. 1-3, and 15–“the holy place”). But some Bible prophecies have both a nearer and a final fulfillment, and that seems true in this case. For example, this forecast by Jesus also forecasts the preaching of the Gospel to all nations (v. 14), which wasn’t fulfilled by 70 A.D. Also He mentioned His glorious coming (verses 27, 30, 37, 39, 42, 44). Some folks teach that almost all of this chapter was fulfilled by the temple’s destruction in 70 A.D., but that seems an incredible stretch.4
Presuming that Matt. 24 surveys this present age, how does Jesus describe it? He warns, in effect, “Don’t expect conditions to get better and better. There will be repeated disasters, calamities and persecutions, most of them caused by sin. Yet don’t cop out of your duty to evangelize all peoples. You will not convert them all, but you can and must preach the gospel to all nations–and then the end will come.”
Second, Paul’s outlook on the future was similar. In his last letter, 2nd Tim. 3 describes “terrible times in the last days” (that period includes the whole time between Christ’s first and second comings, according to Acts 2:17 and Heb. 1:2). 2 Tim. 3:1-9 lists over 20 dreadful vices which would be widespread, characteristic of this age. Yet Paul also says (3:10-4:8) that just as God by His power enabled him to fight the good fight, so Timothy could do the same (so can we).
Third, it seems to me that the book of Revelation’s philosophy of history is the same as Jesus’ and Paul’s: that is, those who reject Christ will go from bad to worse, and God’s saints will face horrendous persecution–yet God will provide strength for His people to be overcomers amid it all, until He comes.
2. I take the classic premill view because it seems to be the most natural interpretation of Rev. 19:11-20:6. Rev. 19:11-21 pictures Christ riding a white horse, like a victorious Roman general. He “makes war…. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword …. [People] were killed with the sword that came out of [his] mouth.” One writer says this portrays not a battle at the end of this age, but the centuries-long conflict between truth and error during which the gospel will gradually conquer the nations. The sword from Christ’s mouth is the word of God (as in Eph. 6:17, Heb. 4:12), and He “kills” His enemies by converting them into followers!
Now that might be a possible meaning of the passage, IF it didn’t contain repeated clues that it means something totally different: Christ judges and makes war. He strikes down the nations and will rule them with an iron scepter (not simply with His word and Spirit). He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God! (What could that mean, according to that theory?) Vultures are summoned to eat the corpses of His defeated enemies. (Why mention such a fact?) The leader of His opponents in this war is “the beast”! (To be consistent, this theory must teach that even he will be converted, but verse 20 contradicts that.)
No, no–this passage does not foretell the age-long conversion of the nations. Instead it describes, with symbolism to be sure, “the battle on the great day of God Almighty” introduced back in Rev. 16:14. It vividly pictures the final Day of the Lord when Christ “is revealed from heaven in blazing fire … [to] punish those who … do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction” (2 Thes. 1:7-9). With those words Paul foretells the same event which John pictures so dramatically. Let’s not empty Revelation of its meaning just because it uses symbolism.
That leads on to Rev. 20:1-6. Many a-mills say, “Yes, there’s a millennium, but it’s now–we’re already in it! It’s the entire church-age. These verses don’t present the last chapter of world-history during this age (as premills say), but a symbolic picture of all of church-history between Jesus’ first and second comings.” They believe that the first resurrection is a symbol of salvation: those who were dead in sin being raised to spiritual life, now (compare Eph. 2:1ff). Some interpreters equate reigning with Christ with Rom. 5:17, “Those who receive God’s grace reign in life through Christ Jesus,” right now. And Leon Morris (usually a fine commentator) suggests that the binding of Satan “may mean that, though Satan is busy, he is restrained from doing his worst. He cannot destroy the church.”
This a-mil interpretation may seem appealing at first, until you notice the text closely! (Please do that.) Then you see that the resurrected ones are not figuratively raised from a spiritual death which was due to sin, but are literally raised from a physical death which was due to martyrdom for Christ’s sake! There’s a whole world of difference between those views. Which does the text teach?
As for Satan, a vast contrast exists between Rev. 12:9, which mentions his present role as “deceiver of the whole world,” (ASV, RSV) and Rev. 20, where he will be bound “to keep him from deceiving the nations.” It doesn’t say, “…to keep him from destroying the church” (Morris’ view); that’s an idea utterly foreign to the text, isn’t it? To illustrate: There’s a great difference between putting a mad dog in the pound so no one need fear his presence (the pre-mill view of Satan during the 1000 years), and–on the other hand– giving Christians a can of Mace-spray so they can protect themselves from the attacks of the loose dog–so he can’t destroy them (the a-mill view). Which view does Scripture really teach?
Of course there is symbolism here, but it’s not all that obscure. We may not understand h-o-w the Lord will do these things. But isn’t the general meaning of w-h-a-t He will do fairly plain, if we take these passages at face value? To speak in scholarly terms, the book of Revelation is indeed in “the genre of apocalyptic” (a literary style where the war between good and evil, God and Satan, is portrayed with vividly dramatic symbolism). But that does not mean we can’t make heads or tails out of it.
3. I take the classic premill view because it seems to agree best with various other passages found earlier in the book of Revelation. Many a-mills believe the 1000-year reign with Christ by those who have part in the first resurrection (Rev. 20:1-6) refers to the church in this age. We reign with Him right now, says this view. But Rev. 2:26-27 and 3:21 contain Christ’s promises to overcomer Christians that they (and we too) will reign with Him (future tense, not present). And Rev. 11:15-18, though written in the past tense as prophets often did when predicting events which were certain to occur later, says that Christ in the future will take His great power and start to reign in the fullest sense. (At that time He will not just overrule evil, but smash it!) We know it is yet future for John says that at that time the dead will be judged and His saints will be rewarded–events which occur later, they haven’t happened yet!
Other amills say that those described in Rev. 20 as reigning with Christ are the martyrs. They reign with Him now, in heaven, sharing His glory because they paid the utmost price. But we must ask, now? We just saw the earlier promises in Rev. of a future, not present, reign. In Heaven? Here’s another verse that throws light on that question. Rev. 5:10 says, Lord, “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” When? Note the future tense again. Where? It specifically says, “On the earth,” not from heaven. They are already a kingdom and priests, but they will reign later, on the earth, and be priests then too (20:6).
Reviewing this point (#4) we see that four times in Revelation John clearly mentions a future reign by God’s people before he ever gets to the hotly-debated chapter 20. It is important to study a passage in the light of the context of the entire book it is in.
4. I take the classic premill view because it seems to agree with various other passages in both the Old and New Covenant writings which promise and/or describe a future time of glory for God and His people in earthly terms. Some critics of premillennialism say the view is based on only one highly figurative chapter in one highly figurative book. To the contrary, please examine several other texts that illustrate our point: Isa. 2:1-4 (is that really fulfilled, as some say, by the church? now–in this age?); Isa. 11:1-9; 35:3-8; 65:17-23. Also Ezek. 36:24-29; and Dan. 7:13-14, 27. (Do the saints have sovereignty and power over the kingdoms under the whole heaven at present? If not, when?) In the New Testament see Matt. 19:28-29; Acts 3:18-21; 1 Cor. 4:8-13 (Paul said he was not reigning now); and 2 Tim. 2:11-12 (he said we will reign later).
We premills don’t claim we can perfectly explain every detail of such passages–that we have fully solved all the mysteries. But to interpret these scriptures as referring either to the church in this present age or to the eternal glory in the new heaven and earth seems to require stretching them v-e-r-y far, and to raise many more questions. True, God may sometimes use earthly experiences and conditions to describe heavenly realities which transcend our present understanding (such as our “wedding” to Christ, being His “bride,” (Rev. 19:7-9). But to me the various passages just listed (and others too) seem to find their fulfillment during the period described in Rev. 20:1-6, between Christ’s return and the eternal state of the new heavens and earth.
5. I take the classic premill view despite the feeling of horror some Christians have at the thought of Christ reigning personally on and over the Earth. They feel it would be shameful and demeaning for the glorified Son of God to come down here. But He did it the first time, living in humble conditions indeed. If He desires to dwell among His resurrected and glorified saints, and with them somehow to rule the nations, I dare say He may do so–whether we think it fitting or not! (And obviously there’s no reason to think of His being restricted to Earth alone. That’s an absurd thought!)
Of course these ideas raise 1000 questions which we cannot answer. [Who are those nations? How can mortals and immortals live together–though, come to think of it, that’s what happened during the weeks between Jesus’ resurrection and His ascension. Etc. etc.] But the existence of unanswerable questions doesn’t prove, or disprove, anything. Just as believers who lived before His first coming couldn’t understand many prophecies in the scriptures they had, so we now cannot begin to grasp fully how things will be when we are glorified at Christ’s return. But let’s believe His word even when we cannot unravel its mysteries. Let’s be glad we have some wonderful surprises ahead of us!
There’s another point related to this. We all know that an early form of the Greek philosophical heresy, gnosticism, infected some of the apostolic churches. The gnostics believed that “spirit” is good but matter is evil (therefore God would never “come in the flesh” as a real man: see 1 John 4:2; 2 John 7). But we need to remember that God is not a gnostic. His Son was not ashamed to take on a human body and live on this material planet even in its fallen condition. He did all this to glorify His Father and redeem us sinners. So there’s no compelling reason He should be ashamed to return and rule personally over this world, leading His people as we help “the nations” disinfect Earth of the ravages caused by sin. Actually, as you think about it, it seems very appropriate that Christ should reign in glory on the very planet where He was doubted, denied, shamed and killed by His enemies.
And here’s something else to ponder: We mentioned earlier that classic premills do not believe Old Covenant rituals will be re-established during the millennium, for they were fulfilled by Jesus and replaced by the eternal New Covenant. On the other hand, will the millennium not see the ongoing fulfillment of God’s ancient promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? He takes those promises very seriously, as the great apostle to the Gentiles makes clear in Romans 4:13, 16; 11:1, 11-12, 25-26, 15:8. The following words were written by Paul–not Scofield, Boll, Hal Lindsey or Tim LaHaye: “I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means!…. Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved…. [The Jews] are loved on account of the patriarchs …. Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs.” We must not ignore those Biblical statements, but try to understand how they fit together with other scriptures such as, “If you [Christians] belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” “It is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.” (Gal. 3:29; Phil. 3:3; also see Gal. 3:7-9.)
The rebellion by the nations (whoever they are) against God after the 1000 years also raises a host of questions and puzzles. It’s very hard to believe. But it certainly reveals the perversity and defiance of human nature. It proves what we already know but the world around us doubts, that a pleasant and flawless environment doesn’t solve our problems. For our sin we need nothing less than divine redemption and regeneration. There can be no possible excuse for rebellion by people who will have lived under ideal moral, spiritual, political, educational, and economic conditions. Thus every defense and rationalization for sin will be stripped away–a fitting introduction to the very next scene John reveals: the final judgment.
You know, I realize it’s just barely possible that I’m wrong about some or all of this! (I’m smiling.) If it turns out that way–what a relief that we are saved by God’s grace, not our correct-ness.
I know the Lord knows my desire to understand, believe and obey His word. If at the end it turns out we premills got it wrong, I expect He will smile and say, “Welcome, my child. You have got quite a lot of things to learn, and unlearn. There will be surprises. Nonetheless–well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord.”
And if the premill view is correct, I expect He will smile and say, “Welcome, my child. You got many things right, but you’ve still got much to learn. There will be surprises. But we have a long time to explore and discover more and more of the unsearchable riches of Christ–my Son and your Lord and Savior. Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord.”
YES! Praise God! And come, Lord Jesus!
1. Prophetic Views in the Stone-Campbell Movement:
My own gleanings, by no means exhaustive, indicate the following: Alexander Campbell was usually a postmill, yet strongly believed that the Jews would be restored to their land and also converted to Jesus as Messiah (“and so all Israel shall be saved,” Rom. 11:26). Also a number of his statements at different times sounded like he was premill! Barton Stone was pre-mill; but agreed with Campbell on Israel’s national restoration and conversion. (Note three beliefs here: regarding the 1,000 years, and Israel’s restored statehood, and their conversion.) Others who agreed with Stone on all three beliefs (probably with minor variations) were James T. Barclay in later life (earlier he was post-mill), Daniel Sommer, and R. H. Boll. T. W. Brents and James A. Harding were pre-mill too, but did not believe in either Israel’s national restoration or conversion. Moses Lard was premill, and did believe in Israel’s future conversion to Jesus but not its restoration to the land. James Challen was premill, but I’m unaware of his views re: Israel.
Of the eight pre-mills just mentioned, it seems only Boll (and possibly Barclay) believed in the rapture of the church before the great tribulation. So far as I know, the rest believed it would occur at the end of that time of persecution by Antichrist. I personally am not aware of the views of Thomas Campbell, Walter Scott, Isaac Errett, MacGarvey, Larimore, Calhoun, and others in the mainline churches, and know only a little about David Lipscomb’s. I believe it was Alexander Campbell who mentioned that one evening after dinner Walter Scott discoursed for some time about the millennium; but A. C. didn’t specify what he said!
Some men in the movement wrote books about Revelation, but from my limited studies it seems preachers by and large were concentrating so much on evangelism and teaching first principles, that many other subjects were widely neglected–like prophecy (and also holiness, according to Norman Bales’ book He Died to Make Men Holy). In the early 1900s R. H. Boll wrote that in his travels some church-members said they had never heard one sermon even about Christ’s return, much less on other prophetic matters! How sad. (Of course some folks over-emphasize such topics; one extreme often leads to the opposite.)
The good thing is that brotherly fellowship in Christ wasn’t broken over such differing interpretations during the 1800s (so far as I know). The sad thing is that such differences became bones of fierce contention and even disfellowship during much of the 1900s.
Of course Alexander Campbell was not the only postmill in the movement. During the 1800s, that view also was widespread. But in the early 1900s, especially during and after World War I, amillennialism rather quickly replaced it. Though I cannot give statistics, it is certain that amills greatly outnumber premills in Churches of Christ. Quite a few Christian Churches wel-come David Reagan (a prominent premill prophecy preacher with roots in Churches of Christ), but the majority of them probably wouldn’t touch him with a 10-foot pole. He did teach classes one year at the NACC however, and Christian Standard ran his article defending premillen-nialism a few years ago.
I’m unsure if the former longtime office editor of Christian Standard, James D. Murch was premill, but year after year in the mid-1900s he invited R. H. Boll (whom he knew was premill) to give “morning devotions” at the Cedar Lake Christian Action conferences. And in his auto-biography he called Boll “undoubtedly the greatest expository preacher of the day in the Restor-ation Movement.” (Adventuring for Christ, page 120.) One of Christian Standard’s questions-and-answers editors in the 1930’s was premill; I re-ran a copy of one of his columns in Word and Work one time. I have also run good articles on prophecy by amills.
2. The following verses specifically mention “great tribulation”:
Matt 24:21-22, 29-30. “…Then there will be a great tribulation, such as has not occurred since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever shall. 22 And unless those days had been cut short, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect those days shall be cut short…. Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light… and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory. 31 And He will send forth His angels with a great trumpet and they will gather together His elect from the four winds….” [NAS; also KJV, NKJV; ASV; RSV.]
Other versions use other terminology. “Great distress”: NIV, NEB, Jerus. Bib. “Great misery”: JBP. “A time of… horror”: NLT. “Trouble far more terrible than any there has ever been… nor will there ever be anything like it”: TEV/GNB.
Rev 7:14. And he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” [NAS; also KJV, RSV].
Other versions: “The great ordeal”: NEB. “The great persecution”: JB, TEV/GNB.
3. Surprisingly, after a long period of declining popularity, postmillennialism has made somewhat of a rebound during recent decades.
4. Matt. 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21 all record Jesus’ prophecy discourse to the apostles. While there are many similarities, there are also crucial differences. So it is important to notice that Luke 21 lays emphasis on the 70 A.D. destruction of Jerusalem, mainly the temple, more than on Christ’s 2nd advent. His primary focus in verses 8-24 is on 70 A.D., while that of verses 25-36 is Jesus’ return and what immediately precedes it. Yet since similar conditions were to prevail before 70 A.D. and the 2nd coming, some teachings and warnings apply to both.
Differing from Luke to some extent, both Matthew and Mark give more emphasis to the 2nd coming than to 70 A.D. Probably that was because Luke alone of the three writers had already included a lengthy section of Jesus’ teaching re: His return in chapter 17:20-37. We conclude that while there is much overlapping in the three chapters, there are important differing emphases (but not contradictions) between the first two and Luke. Some teachers overlook this fact and thus conclude that Jesus’ predictions on that occasion were all fulfilled in 70 A.D.
SOME BOOKS WE RECOMMEND
(Some may be out of print. Call bookstores that carry secondhand religious books, or search the Web.)
I. Those in which proponents of each position explain their particular viewpoint:
The Meaning of the Millennium – Four Views. IVP, 1977.
Zondervan Publishers has a helpful series of such books as the above, including: Four Views on Sanctification, Four Views on Eternal Security, Four Views on Hell, Three Views on Creation and Evolution, Four Views on the Book of Revelation, Three Views on the Millennium and Beyond, Three Views on the Rapture. Etc.
II. General Surveys and Evaluations of Various Views Throughout History:
The New Millennium Manual. By Clouse, Hosack and Pierard. Baker, 1999.
Dreams, Visions and Oracles. Carl Armerding and Ward Gasque, editors. Baker, 1977
III. Other Books which have helped me personally:
The Kingdom of God. By R. H. Boll. Word and Work. No date.
The Rapture – A Question of Timing. By William Kimball. College Press, Joplin, MO. 1985.
Crucial Questions About the Kingdom of God. By George Ladd. Eerdmans, 1952.
The Blessed Hope. By George Ladd. Eerdmans, 1956.
The Church and the Tribulation. By Robert Gundry. Zondervan, 1973.
The Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church. By Marvin Rosenthal. Nelson, 1990.
The Rapture Question Answered. Robert Van Kampen. Revell, 1997.
Living for Christ in the End Times. David Reagan. New Leaf, 2000.
Alex Wilson has been a minister of the gospel for more than 45 years, 20 of them in Manila, Philippines. He is a pastor-teacher at Portland Church of Christ, and faculty member at the School of Biblical Studies, both in Louisville, Kentucky.
“Why I Take a Premillennial View” (Shorter Version) by Alex V. Wilson
“Why I Am an Amillennialist” by Robert Lowery
“Five Books on the Millennium” by Robert Lowery