RPM, Volume 18, Number 9, February 21 to February 27, 2016

To the Ends of the Earth

Millennial Positions
The Book of Revelation

By Dr. Derek W.H. Thomas

1. Introduction

The position adopted in these studies has been the amillennial position. This affects not only the way Revelation 20 is understood (with its reference to the millennium), but the entire Book of Revelation.

The term amillennialism combines three terms: the privative "a"= not; "mille" = 1,000; and "annus" = a year. Basically, it denies that the 1,000 years reign mentioned in Rev. 20:4-6 refers to a limited period of time following the return of Christ in which Jesus will reign in a physical kingdom on earth (the pre-millennial view).

Whilst this is the primary significance of the term amillennialism, in Reformed circles another significance of the term has emerged, one which denies that Scripture speaks of a limited period of time between the first and second comings of Christ (and usually thought to be near the end of this period) in which Christ's reign will be manifested in a distinct fashion (the postmillennial view). In order to understand this position better, we shall first of all contrast it with premillennialism. In the next article we shall contrast it with postmillennialism).

2. History of Premillennialism

Whilst exaggerated claims are sometimes made to the effect that the early Christians were all chilialists (i.e. premillennial), it cannot be denied that a considerable majority of them were, including such writers as Justin Martyr and Papias of Hierapolis. The reasons for this lay in the fact that the Jews had long since held a belief in an earthly reign of the Messiah, and Christian Jews retained this expectation, maintaining that such an earthly reign would follow the return of Christ (whether that return be thought of as consisting of one or two stages). Additionally, and of some interest to us as we approach a new millennium, chiliasts maintained that the pattern of six days of creation followed by one day of rest was to be followed in the progress of the kingdom. Hence, after six thousand years of history would follow a thousand years of millennial rule (remembering that a thousand years is as one day). The reference to a thousand years in Revelation 20 was thus seen as confirmation of this expectation.

The major blow to chiliasm in the early church came with Augustine of Hippo who had once espoused the position. Writing in his City of God (XX:7), written in the early part of the fifth century a.d., Augustine brought the charge of "worldliness" against this view, a charge which has often been leveled against it since that time. Adopting a position espoused by Tychonius the Donatist, he took the view that the 1,000 years of Revelation 20 referred to the entire period of time between the first and second coming of Jesus Christ. As a result, chiliasm was condemned by the Third Ecumenical Council of 431 at Ephesus and rejected "as a fable and a deviation from biblical orthodoxy."

Chiliasm re-emerged during the Reformation among some radical spiritualists, Guillaume Postel, a feminist who believed himself to be the Shekinah reborn, was one who proclaimed a restoration of the millennium in 1556.

At the time of the Westminster Assembly in London, Johann Heinrich Alsted's work on the millennium was translated into English (in 1643) as The Beloved City. His German account of this work had already influenced Joseph Mede (1586-1638) whose work Apocalyptica (1627). This latter work was to prove influential as right into the nineteenth century and the famous Albury Park Prophetic Conferences concerned by the crisis caused by the French Revolution. It was during this period of the nineteenth century that Edward Irving (known for his deviation in the understanding of the Person of Christ as well as issues regarding the extraordinary gifts) attended these very Conferences. His own translation of the Chilean Jesuit, Manuel Lacunza's work, The Coming of Messiah in Glory and Majesty, in 1826 was to find fruit in the sermons he would preach two years later at St. Cuthbert's, Edinburgh, during the week of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland! Among the listeners who were greatly impressed and affected was Horatius Bonar.

What had been fairly disparate until now, then split into its two distinct branches: Classical Dispensationalism (represented by J. N. Darby, the Scofield Reference Bible and until recently, Dallas Theological Seminary) and Historic Premillennialism (represented in our time by such figures as George Eldon Ladd and perhaps the majority of non-reformed New Testament scholars, such as Darrell Bock).

3. Historic Premillennialism

Historic premillennialism differs from Dispensationalism over the issue of the so-called rapture, - a widely held notion that the Church (specifically, believers) will be taken away for a period of time so that they will not experience the tribulation, or apostasy that is believed to characterize the end times. Historic Premillennialists believe that the church must go through this final tribulation whilst Dispensationalists do not.

Historic premillennialists believe that following Christ's return, believers who have died will rise to meet Christ in the air. Believers who are alive at the time of Christ's coming will be transformed and glorified, and all believers will then descend with Christ to the earth to establish a millennial reign of Christ for one thousand years. (The details of this period vary somewhat even amongst those who call themselves premillennial). Towards the end of this period, and before history culminates in the judgment of the Great White Throne, Satan will be released to deceive the nations and gather them together for the Battle of Gog and Magog.

Whilst problems exist over the interpretation of such passages as Revelation 20:1-6 and 1 Corinthians 15:23-24, the main problem with this view is the idea that the souls of those who have died, having enjoyed the glory of the intermediate state, are now brought back to this earth and to an existence characterized by opposition and tribulation. Furthermore, the idea of glorified believers (those who remain alive at Christ's coming) continuing to live in this world is difficult to contemplate. But, by far and away the most problematic idea is the thought that Christ has to return and live in this world. To cite A. A. Hoekema: "Why should he after his return in glory still have to rule his enemies with a rod of iron, and still have to crush a final rebellion against him at the close of the millennium? Was not Christ's battling against his enemies completed during his state of humiliation? Did he not during that time win the final, decisive victory over evil, sin, death, and Satan? Does not the Bible teach that Christ is coming back in the fullness of his glory to usher in, an interim period of qualified peace and blessing, but the final state of unqualified perfection." (The Bible and the Future, 185).

4. Dispensationalism

Dispensationalism has changed over the decades to such an extent that it is now increasingly difficult to categorize the diverse groups without adding significant labels to distinguish one form from another. However, it may still be legitimate to distinguish two main schools of thought: Classical Dispensationalism and Progressive Dispensationalism. The latter maintain some of the essential characteristics of Classical Dispensationalism but, over the last thirty years or so, have abandoned some of the more exegetically objectionable issues. In this article we will outline some of the main features of Classical Dispensationalism as maintained by Cyrus I. Scofield (1843-1921) and in the last century, John Nelson Darby (1800-1880).

Dispensationalism has many forms and intricate issues, but for our purposes in our study of the book of Revelation, two general areas distinguish it from other schools of thought in the interpretation of the Bible and its eschatology.

A. A 'Literal' Hermeneutic in the interpretation of the Bible

One of the problems with interpreting the Book of Revelation (the focus of our study in these articles) is the issue of literalism: are we to understand the visions and prophecies of the Revelation in a 'literal' manner. Part of the problem has to do with the meaning of the word 'literal.' In one sense, the answer to the question is, Of course we understand the book of Revelation literally, because we are to understand it as literature. We are, therefore, to be sensitive to the kind of literature that Revelation comprises. It is very specific literature known as apocalyptic literature with particular emphases upon the use of numbers and colors and cartoon-like imagery. One writer, defending a Classical Dispensational view of literalism, says: "Interpreters should understand the revelation to John as they do the rest of the Bible…" Precisely! We understand poetry as poetry, history as history, parable as parable, and the symbolic nature of apocalyptic as apocalyptic!

B. A Two-fold coming of Christ

Dispensationalists are committed to a view in which the church will escape the Tribulation that some expect to characterize the period of time prior to end.In order to facilitate this, a view of second coming of Christ has been advocated in which Christ's coming is two-fold. There is phase of the return which can occur at any moment. Christ returns, but not all the way to the earth. The dead in Christ will be raised (and, according to some Dispensationalists, Old Testament believers along with them). Believers who remain alive will be transformed and glorified and will be raptured along with the dead in Christ who have been raised to make their way to heaven for the seven year marriage feast of the Lamb (c.f. Dan. 9:24-27 and the so-called prophecy of the seventieth week). During this seven year period, in the absence of the church, several things will take place, including: the tribulation (predicted in Daniel 9:27); a remnant of Israel will return to Jesus as the Messiah ¾ the 144,000 sealed Israelites of Revelation 7:3-8; and the appearance of antichrist (2 Thess. 2 and sometimes linked with "the beast from the sea" of Revelation 13:1-10). Following the seven year period Christ will return in the second phase and this time descend all the way to the earth together with the church (according to this view, the church that has enjoyed heaven will return to this sinful world again). At this time the kings of the earth and the armies of the beast and the false prophet will gather together for the Battle of Armageddon will take place (Rev. 16:16) will take place, and only when this is over will Christ begin His millennial reign on earth establishing His throne in Jerusalem.

But is there any biblical basis for a two-phase return of Christ? Sometimes 1 Thessalonians 4:15 is said to describe a secret rapture despite the fact that verse 16 speaks a shout, the voice of an archangel and trumpet calls! Hardly secret! In fact, it is one of the noisiest passages in the Bible!

Sometimes the individual Greek words are said to distinguish one phase of Christ's coming from another, but there is no evidence for this at all. In fact, the same word (parousia) used in 1 Thessalonians 4:15 (often suggested as the passage which teaches a rapture) is used in the previous chapter to speak of the occasion when "our Lord Jesus comes with all His holy ones" (3:13) ¾ clearly referring, according to this view, to the second phase of Christ's return (the first being "for" His saints, rather than "with" His saints).

It is, of course, the two-phased return of Christ that allows for the view that the return of Jesus Christ is imminent. If the Bible speaks of certain things that must first take place before Jesus returns (like, for example, the appearance of antichrist or the conversion of Israel as described in Romans 11:26) then it is impossible to say, as is often said, "Jesus could return at any moment." If, however, there is a two-phased return, then it is possible to suggest that the first phase (the secret rapture phase) can be at any moment (imminent), whilst the second-phase is not. But if, as we suggest, the coming of Christ is not a two-phased coming, it follows that an imminent coming of Jesus is not to be expected either. A better way to think of the Second Coming is to say that it could occur within our life-time, that is, soon (or impending). Saying this removes the necessity of suggesting that it could be "in the next few minutes."

But more importantly for our study of Revelation is the widely held view that the church will be removed before the tribulation begins. There is no basis for this whatsoever. Jesus speaks of the tribulation of the church in the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24, but adds specifically that "the days will be shortened for the sake of the elect' (v.22). There is a rapture of the saints, but it is neither secret, nor does it occur before the tribulation, but following it. "They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And He will send His angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other" (Matt. 24:31). This is clearly a reference to those events which signal the end. It might be argued (and it is sometimes done) that Jesus had Jewish elect in mind, those Jews converted during the rapture period when the saints have been taken to heaven. Matthew's Gospel was written with Jews in mind, but the same point is made in mark's Gospel (13:20) ¾ a Gospel that was written specifically for Gentiles.

But we have to ask ourselves a more fundamental point. What would be the point of Paul's warning in 2 Thessalonians 2 of the coming of the man of lawlessness if the church is not going to be around to be troubled by him? This, is the fundamental question which helps us see in part what the point of the book of Revelation is: to help the church prepare itself for the trial that will ensue in every age, right up to the end itself. The church will never escape that perspective. As Calvin says, commenting on 1 Peter 1:11, "God has fashioned the church from the beginning in such a way that the Cross is the way to victory and death the way to life." The Book of Revelation is the armor we need to prepare ourselves for the battle ahead.

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