This post, I think, legitimately counts as schoolwork, since my assignment (due today!) is that I produce a 5-10 page Statement of Faith. One of the topics I must cover is eschatology. Tim Challies, and others who read him, have recently been skirmishing on the beast of Revelation, and what relation that beast may or may not have to the Roman Catholic Church. I’ve avoided the question for the most part, since I feel I need to have a cohesive eschatology before I can make informed judgments about little details like the identities of beasts and whores and antichrists. Which brings me to questions on the millennium.
The millennium, the thousand year reign of Christ on earth, is probably the biggest point of contention among Christians who think about the last things described in scripture. In all the text of the Bible, it’s only mentioned in one place: Revelation 20. Nevertheless, 1000 years is an awfully long time, which is why the number is frequently symbolic of an era, an epoch, or an age. Most empires and dynasties last shorter than 1000 years. So what a person thinks about “The Millennium” can dramatically affect what they think is God’s will for man’s life on earth.
There are four major views on the millennium – premillennialism (two kinds – traditional or classic, and dispensational), postmillennialism, and amillennialism (or “realized” millennialism). Premillennialism holds that, after a period of particularly intense tribulation, Jesus Christ himself shall return in the flesh and set up an earthly empire which will last for 1000 years. The “pre-” indicates Christ’s return before the establishment of this empire. Classic premillennialism stops there, but dispensationalism, because of other teaching in its system, goes on with details such as the secret catching away (or “rapture”) of all true Christians before the great tribulation, and the nature and location of the capital of Jesus’ empire.
Postmillennialism, possibly the strangest of all eschatologies, teaches that the millennium will be a kind of Christian utopia, brought on by simple evangelism. This perfect, world-wide, Christian empire will last approximately 1000 years before Christ’s return (hence the “post-”). Postmillennialism seemed very intuitive in the West during the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 20th century, it was hard to adhere to. In the 21st, we tend to look on it as some strange prehistoric reptile: difficult to believe that once it roamed the earth.
Amillennialism teaches that there will be no earthly empire, *per se*(hence the “a-”). Instead, “the millennium” is understood to refer to the entire church age. We are presently living in the kingdom set up by Jesus Christ. Therefore the millennium is already realized. This makes sense when you consider that Jesus himself told Pilate that his kingdom was not an earthly empire. Otherwise the dignity alone which was due him would have required that he call on angels to rescue him from the insult of death on a cross – particularly at the hands of another earthly empire. Amillennialism is most popular among Presbyterians and other reformed Christians who are willing to do the exegetical work to come to such a position.
Personally, I’m still torn between classic premillennialism and amillennialism. I feel safe tossing postmillennialism, simply because it seems to have been based on a faulty utopianism of a certain age. No utopia, in my opinion, could ever be set up without the direct intervention of God. Not even a single town, however much evangelized, has ever reached anything resembling a utopia, so how can we expect one day to establish such a rule over the entire earth? Similarly with dispensationalism, while I think there are certain insights which can be gained from dispensationalist readings of various texts, particularly in regards to God’s intent with that everlasting anomaly, the people of Israel, their system strikes me as hardly cohesive. This is particularly the case in terms of the rapture. Suddenly, at the end of all things, after God has seen fit to put his people through every imaginable kind of persecution, there comes one tribulation which is so awful, so horrific, that God feels it is too much for his people? If tribulation were not beneficial for the church, there have already been many tribulations from which we might have been raptured. Such thinking sells apocalyptic action stories, but it doesn’t sell Jesus Christ, who himself was made complete by what he suffered.
But classic premillennialism and amillennialism both have their draws. Premillennialism because it is the simplest explanation of the text, and because it has been the longest-standing position. The ancient church was almost entirely premillennialist. Amillennialism because of their arguments and because their corollary descriptions of what church life should look like jive the best with my innate sensibility. But there are problems with both positions. For premillennialists, questions begin to come up about the innate nature of the kingdom of God. If Jesus kingdom “is not of this world,” why should we think that, at some future date, Jesus will come back to set up such a kingdom which is “of this world”? More to the point, what exactly is the difference between the millennial kingdom and the New Heaven and New Earth which will be the final state of man? Dispensationalists have an idea, but I’m not really satisfied with it, since it’s complicated with multiple resurrections and (quite literal) castles in the air.
Amillennialism is more complicated (and I have more exacting questions, since Anthony Hoekema, whom I’ve been reading, holds to this position). Amillennialists generally read Revelation through the lens of something called “progressive parallelism.” That is, they see Revelation covering the same events repeatedly through different perspectives, each one progressively delving further into the plot. You might have seen something similar watching Hoodwinked. At any rate, in Revelation 20, there are 3 major events: First, Satan is bound at the initiation of this kingdom, and for its duration; Second, the dead in Christ, particularly those who had been martyred, are raised to rule and reign with Christ; Third, at the end of this period, Satan will be released to deceive the nations once more before the end. The amillennial understanding of these events is as follows: Satan has been bound from the time of the first coming of Christ, either by his very appearance, or by the victory that he won by his death on the cross and his resurrection. That Satan has been bound indicates that, contrary to other ages, the gospel is free to go forth to all the nations relatively unhindered. The expansion of the church is guaranteed since Satan’s power over the minds of men has been bound. The resurrection of the dead in Christ is understood to be a spiritual resurrection, so that all deceased Christians are currently ruling and reigning with Christ. They will be physically resurrected at the time of Jesus final return before the Judgment. And the third point, where Satan is released again to deceive? I don’t know. They just say it will happen. And that’s where I lose it.
If Satan is bound by virtue of Jesus’ victory on the cross, what is it that works his “unbinding”? Does this mean that at some future time before Christ’s return, the power of the gospel will no longer be in effect? If it is the coming of the kingdom of God which brings about Satan’s binding, what could bring about his losing but the termination of the Kingdom? I don’t see any way around such an argument. Hoekema mentions in passing that there is a further difficulty in that very rarely is the word which is translated “came to life” in Rev 20:4 ever used to mean anything other than physical life. Hoekema cites one other place in Revelation where the dead in Christ are shown to be alive: Revelation 6:9-11.
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
But this is worse! For this passage, while it does describe the dead in Christ as very much alive in the spirit, it also describes a time after the resurrection when they are also very much *not* “ruling and reigning with Christ.” It is very difficult to construe “given a white robe and told to rest a little longer” to mean the same thing as “reigned with Christ for a thousand years.” It may be related, but it’s just not the same.
So I am still unsettled, beyond my confidence that Jesus Christ will one day return in body to judge the quick and the dead, that there will be a resurrection, and that there will be created a New Heaven and a New Earth before the end of time. But since I am unsettled on any prior view of things, I feel at leisure to make up a new one. Consider these verses: “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, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while” (Rev 20:2-3). And consider these dates: 325 AD and 1453 AD. Those dates are the years for the first Council of Nicaea, which established a first consensus on the official doctrines of the Christian church, and for the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. Those dates are as good as any for demarking what has been called “Christendom,” the association of Christianity with a single empire, presumably run under Christian rules. You will note that the dates are awfully close to 1000 years apart. You could even make them closer by saying that the demise of Christian rule in the mind of Europe began with the Renaissance, dated roughly at the beginning of the 14th century. So, one thousand years exactly. What an oddity, that there should be such religious unity for such a peculiar period of time. Surely there ought to be a way to interpret scripture in such a way that makes this 1000 years fit, perhaps some odd conglomerate of post- and amillennialism. Under such a view, the current era would be that time when Satan had again been released to deceive the nations, which might explain some of the troubles we’ve had since the Renaissance. No doubt, such a theory would have at least as many theological problems as any of the others out there now, probably many many more. Nevertheless, it’s something very interesting to consider.
I shall have to give it further thought when I’ve finished my paper.