By Alex V. Wilson
Being correct about the millennium is 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 essential for 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 read it, and if you asked him to explain “the thousand years” he might have replied, “I don’t know what you mean.” (But if you asked him about the kingdom of God and the coming of Christ, I believe his answers would have fit into a premillennial framework.) Yet since all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for us, understanding the millennial reign of Christ is a blessing to seek earnestly. May God give us balance.
I take a premillennialist view despite the fact there are some extremist premills—and even some crackpots. (Of course they might call me that.) I get discouraged by those who indulge in sensationalism, overliteralism, and sometimes date-setting. But after all, there are also some extremist amillennialists and postmillennialists (and crackpots?) who are overly figurative. In most doctrinal disagreements, someone with an extreme viewpoint 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 a premill view despite the fact that some outstanding Christians and scholars take other views. There have been numerous outstanding premill Christians and scholars too, including Barton Stone, Moses Lard, James Harding, and R. H. Boll (from the Restoration Movement), plus Charles Spurgeon, John Walvoord, Carl Henry, George Ladd, Marvin Rosenthal, and Robert Van Kampen—to give just a small sampling.
I take a 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 have never heard any premill teach there will be a second chance for salvation after death, nor that the first coming of Christ was a failure. Likewise, we don’t believe that Christ’s church was an “afterthought” or “accident.” We don’t believe that when Israel in general rejected Christ, “God settled for the church as second best.” But at various times and places we have been accused of believing such stuff.
A number of premills, including myself, believe in classic or historic premillennialism rather than dispensational premillennialism. Many (but not all) dispensationalists believe the following, while historic premills do not:
• The “postponed kingdom” theory.
• The Sermon on the Mount is not for the church, at least not as a rule of life.
• Jesus will certainly, without a doubt, rapture the church “before the great tribulation and thus seven years before his glorious coming.”
• The millennium will be more like the Old Covenant than the New (that is, having animal sacrifices, limited priesthood based on human ancestry, etc.).
1. I take the classic premill view because it seems to me to fit the biblical “philosophy of history.” Postmillennialism (which has made somewhat of a comeback) has highly optimistic expectations about the progress the gospel and the church will make throughout this age. They think most people worldwide will be converted to Christ and thus all societies and cultures will to a large extent be Christianized—all before Christ returns. Premills and amills have much more pessimistic views about this.
Which is more biblical? Study 2 Timothy, Paul’s last letter. Chapter 3 describes “terrible times in the last days” (which includes the whole period between Christ’s first and second comings, according to Acts 2:14-18 and Hebrews 1:2). Second Timothy 3:1-9 lists more than 20 dreadful vices that will characterize this age. Yet Paul knows (3:10–4:8) that just as God by his power enabled him to fight the good fight, so Timothy could do the same (and so can we). Avoid overoptimism, but also its opposite extreme.
2. I take the classic premill view because it seems to be the most natural interpretation of Revelation 19:11–20:6. Specifically, Revelation 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. . . . [His enemies] were killed with the sword that came out of [his] mouth.”
One writer says this portrays not the final conflict at the end of this age, but the centuries-long clash between truth and error during which the gospel will gradually conquer the nations. He says the sword from Christ’s mouth is the Word of God (as in Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12), and he “kills” his enemies by converting them into followers! That is, it’s the history of world evangelism, not “the last battle”!
Now that might be a possible meaning if the passage didn’t contain repeated clues that it means something totally different! Notice: Christ “judges and makes war.” He “strike[s] 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 this 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 world’s nations. Instead it describes, with much symbolism to be sure, “the battle on the great day of God Almighty” introduced back in Revelation 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 Thessalonians 1:7-9). With those words Paul foretells the same event John pictures here so dramatically. Let’s not empty Revelation of its meaning just because it uses symbolism.
That leads on to Revelation 20:1-6. Many amillennialists 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 the first resurrection is a symbol of salvation: those who were dead in sin being raised to spiritual life now (compare Ephesians 2:1ff). Some interpreters equate reigning with Christ with Romans 5:17, “Those who receive God’s . . . grace . . . reign in life through . . . Jesus Christ,” 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 amillennialist interpretation may seem appealing at first, until you study 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. Instead they are literally raised from a physical death which was due to martyrdom for Christ’s sake! There’s a world of difference between those views. Which does the text teach? If you haven’t done so recently, read at least Revelation 18:1–21:8 again and then reread this section (the preceding four paragraphs and this one).
As for Satan, a vast contrast exists between Revelation 12:9 (American Standard Version, Revised Standard Version), which mentions his present role as “deceiver of the whole world,” and Revelation 20, where he will be bound “to keep him from deceiving the nations.” It doesn’t say “to keep him from destroying the church” during this age (Morris’s 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 premill view of Satan during the 1,000 years), and—on the other hand—giving everyone a can of Mace-spray so they can protect themselves from the attacks of the loose dog—so he can’t destroy them now (the amill view). Which view does Scripture really teach?
Of course there is symbolism here, but it’s not all that obscure. We may not understand how the Lord will do these things. But isn’t the general meaning of what he will do fairly plain, if we take these passages at face value? To speak in scholarly terms, the book of Revelation is indeed an “apocalyptic genre” (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 of it!
3. I take the classic premillennialist view because it seems to agree best with various other passages found earlier in Revelation. Many amillennialists believe the 1,000-year reign with Christ by those who have part in the first resurrection (Revelation 20:1-6) refers to the church in this age. We reign with him right now, says this view. But Revelation 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 Revelation 11:15-18, though written in the past tense as prophets often did when foretelling events that are 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 Revelation 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 Revelation of a future, not present, reign. In Heaven? Here’s another verse that throws light on that question. Revelation 5:10 says, “You [the Lord] 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 in Heaven. They are already a kingdom and priests, but they will reign later, on the earth, and be priests then too (cf. 20:6).
Revelation mentions or promises a future reign by God’s people four times before we ever get to the hotly debated chapter 20. It is important to study a passage in the light of the context of the entire book it appears in.
4. I take the classic premillennialist view because it seems to agree with other passages throughout the Bible that promise or describe the future glory of God and his people in earthly terms. Some critics of premillennialism say it is based on only one highly figurative chapter in one highly figurative book. But examine Isaiah 2:1-4 (can you really believe that is fulfilled in either this present age or the final eternal state?); Isaiah 11:1-9; 35:3-8; 65:17-23; Ezekiel 36:24-30; and Daniel 7:13, 14, 27. (Do “the saints” have sovereignty and power over “the kingdoms under the whole heaven” at present?) In the New Testament see Matthew 19:28, 29; Acts 3:18-21; 1 Corinthians 4:8-13 (Paul said he was not reigning now); and 2 Timothy 2:11, 12 (he said we will reign later).
We premills don’t claim we can perfectly explain every detail of such passages. But to interpret these Scriptures as referring either to the church in this present age or to the eternal glory seems to require stretching them very far and to raise many more questions. True, God may sometimes use earthly experiences and conditions to describe heavenly realities that transcend our present understanding. (For example, our glorified relationship with Jesus as his “bride.”) But to me these many passages seem to find their fulfillment during the period described in Revelation 19:1–20:6, between Christ’s glorious return and the final, eternal state of the new heavens and earth.
Of course there are questions nobody can answer now because God hasn’t revealed all the details. But lack of space prohibits discussing them here. This article is condensed from a more complete one on the Web that interested readers may refer to (see www.christianstandard.com).
I realize it’s possible we premillennialists might be wrong about some of this! (I’m smiling.) If it turns out we’re mistaken, what a relief that we are saved by God’s grace and not our correctness. I know our Father knows our desire to understand, believe, and obey his Word. If at the end it turns out we got it wrong, I expect he will smile and say to each of us, “Welcome, my child. You’ve got many 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’ve got many things right, but you still have 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 Savior. Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord.”
YES! Praise God! And “Come, Lord Jesus!”
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” (Longer Version) by Alex V. Wilson
“Why I Am an Amillennialist” by Robert Lowery
“Five Books on the Millennium” by Robert Lowery