Amillennialism: An Eschatology for These Last Days
Are we living in the last days?
Yes, I know we are, for the Bible says that we have been ever since the Son of God came into the world to purchase our redemption (Heb. 1:1-2).
But are we living in “the last of the last days”? Are we nearing the final scenes of world history, the Second Coming of Christ, and the Consummation of all things?
Well, only God knows. Nevertheless, I will say that I think we are; and in this essay I want to explain why, and also why I believe that amillennial eschatology alone will adequately prepare us for them.
The Last of the Last Days
For two millennia the Church has encountered what our Lord referred to as the beginning of birth pains (Matt. 24:8). These include wars, rumors of war, famines, earthquakes, pestilence, the deceptive teachings of false christs and false prophets, and the ebb and flow of persecution. All such things are part and parcel of the Great Tribulation, out of which the sovereign God has been faithfully rescuing his beloved children for generations, uniting them by faith to his Son, and planting them safely on the Zion up above, where they eagerly await the glories of the Zion up ahead (John 4:22-24; Gal. 4:26; Heb. 12:18-24; Rev. 7).
Today, however, the universal Church is witnessing a notable intensification of the birth pains. Christendom is in collapse. European churches stand largely empty. Whole denominations, rich with Christian history and culture, are now infected with the spirit of the age and slide into compromise and apostasy. Outspoken (and soft-spoken) atheism is on the rise, even in America, a historic citadel of the faith. The Western intelligentsia speaks openly of a “post-Christian” society. As in the days of Noah and Lot, world culture swiftly descends into lawlessness: gratuitous violence, murder, polymorphous sexual immorality, theft, kidnapping, slavery, drug abuse, lying, profanity, greed, fraud, occultism, fanaticism, and anarchy. Meanwhile, the persecution of biblically faithful Christians increases. Courts, universities, employers, political parties, and media outlets drive believers to the margins of society. Freedom of religious speech, practice, and assembly is curtailed, if not canceled. While estimates differ widely, all agree that thousands of believers are dying annually for their faith. Day by day the souls of the martyrs flow into heaven, taking their place beneath the altar of God (Rev. 6:10).
But in the midst of all this gloom there is good news as well. Just as God promised, where sin abounds, grace much more abounds. Yes, the true spiritual Church is a little flock, but the glory of the Lord remains upon her. She alone is the one true hope of the world: a city set upon a hill, a light shining in the deep darkness that covers the peoples. Through the global preaching of the gospel, men and women of every nation are coming to the brightness of her light and streaming into the City of God. Amidst the raging storm the Lord is still building his Church (Is. 60 1-3; Matt. 16:18, 24:14; Rom. 5:20).
But are the birth pains really coming to an end? Has a world mysteriously pregnant with eternal life reached transition? Is the day of delivery upon us? Are the Parousia, the Consummation, and the rebirth of the universe now at hand, even at the door (Matt 24:33)?
No and yes. No, because we have not yet witnessed three special signs that our Lord taught us to look for—signs that herald the imminence of the end. But yes, if we pause to consider why they may soon be upon us.
Consider first the Great Commission. The Lord said, “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come (Matt. 24:14). Has the Church reached the whole world with the gospel? No, not yet. According to the Joshua Project, there are currently more than 17,000 people groups in the world, of which about 7,000 remain technically “unreached.” This is over 40% of all people groups, 2.9 billion souls. It is a staggering number, largely representing the Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Communists, and animists who inhabit the so-called “10/40 window.”
We must remember, however, that the gap between “reached” and “unreached” has never been smaller; that the pool of potential missionaries has never been larger; that people movements are continually springing up in many lands; and that modern advances in communications technology are bringing the gospel to multitudes, thereby facilitating rapid church growth even in supposedly “closed” nations. Yes, much work remains to be done, and many pioneer missionaries are needed to do it. Nevertheless, it is not wishful thinking to say that today’s Church is powerfully “hastening” the coming of the Lord, and that the completion of the Great Commission is near (2 Peter 3:12). Says the Joshua Project, “We are within range of penetrating every people group on the planet with the light of the gospel, and with more momentum than ever before in history.”1
Secondly, it is also true that we have not yet seen the large-scale conversion of God’s ancient covenant people, ethnic Israel—a blessed hope which I believe is indeed promised in Scripture (Rom. 11). However, the stage is certainly set for it. Globally, anti-Semitism is on the rise. Many of the sons of Jacob have returned to their former homeland, a staggering feat of providence that can hardly be without redemptive significance. Ethnic Israel’s spiritual wealth is inversely proportional to their material: From Christ’s perspective, they are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, naked—and deeply loved (Rom. 11:28; Rev. 3:17). Even now there is a great famine in their land, such that one day soon—perhaps amidst the birth pains of persecution and war—multitudes of Jews will finally cry out to God’s greater Joseph: first for forgiveness, and then for food, drink, and the perfect safety of a far better homeland where righteousness dwells (Gen. 45:1-28; 2 Peter 1:13).2
Finally, it is also true that the Man of Lawlessness has not yet been revealed, and that the Last Battle and the greatest tribulation have not yet begun (Matt. 24:9-28, 2 Thess. 2:3-12; Rev. 11:7-10, 13:6-10, 16:12-16, 19:17-21, 20:7-10). As never before, however, there are signs that the final clash of the kingdoms is drawing near. I have just cited rapidly increasing lawlessness, apostasy, and persecution, all of which may well herald, or even presently fulfill, the “rebellion” of which Christ, the apostle Paul, and the Revelator all spoke (Matt. 24:4-28; 2 Thess. 2:1ff; 2 Tim. 3:1-5; Rev. 9:20-21, 16:8-11).
Alongside these we also observe a fresh upsurge of the Babylonian tendency in world history (Gen. 11:1-9; Dan. 7; Rev. 13, 18). Guided as if by an invisible hand, an emerging network of powerful elites—corporate, governmental, bureaucratic, military, scientific, educational, journalistic, and technocratic—militates against democratic and nationalist impulses, working instead toward a Great Reset of human nature and society. What’s more, recent history has shown that by means of powerful propaganda this network is quite capable of manipulating huge swaths of humanity toward their chosen ends. Though God’s prophetic word indicates that their path to a global utopia will be strewn with the thorns of war (Dan. 11:36-12:13; Rev. 17:16), it is nevertheless clear that the unthinkable has now become thinkable: A final world empire, ruled by a final world tyrant holding the family of nations in a twofold iron grip: the hope of heaven on earth, and the fear of annihilation for those unwilling to comply. Happily, the gospel continues to go forth with good success to every tribe, tongue, people, and nation, so that new churches are springing up in their midst. Yet even as it does, a world-system given over to idolatry—and drunk with pride, wealth, sensuality, and the lust for power—grows increasingly hardened. Like Egypt of old, at any moment it could turn en masse against God’s eschatological Israel, thinking to pursue her to the death through a Red Sea of religious cleansing.
Amillennialism: Scripture’s One True Eschatology
Yes, the Church may well be entering the last of the last days.3 And if so, it’s more important than ever that she be anchored to the Bible’s one true eschatology. My conviction, defended from Scripture in two books and several essays, is that this high honor rightly belongs the amillennialism, the classic eschatology of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant communions.
What exactly is amillennialism? The simplest answer is based on the word itself. Literally, it means “no 1000 years.” But amillennarians do not deny the existence of a millennium (which is clearly taught in Revelation 20), only that the 1000 years are literal, that the millennial reign of Christ begins after his Second Coming, and that it takes place on the earth. In other words, they are not premillennarians, who believe that Christ will return before a literal 1000 year reign centered in earthly Jerusalem. Instead, they are best referred to as present-millennarians, believing that the 1000 years of Revelation 20 symbolize the present heavenly reign of Christ, who rules spiritually over his Church and providentially over the whole world. In short, amillennarians believe we are living in the millennium now, and that we have been for some 2000 years. As we’ll see in just a moment, this view has an enormous impact on how we think about the Consummation of all things.
But, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, the simplest answer has not resolved the Great End Time Debate (GETD) that currently roils the evangelical world. For this reason I have found it helpful to explain amillennialism in terms of the four biblical themes that underlie this particular contest. In what follows I will sketch them briefly without the proof texts and biblical illustrations that I have provided elsewhere.
The first (and most fundamental) theme is the Kingdom of God (KOG). According to amillennarians, the Kingdom is the direct spiritual reign of God the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit, over all that the triune God has redeemed and made his own. It is the realm of God, beneath the reign of God—a realm that therefore partakes of the glory of God.
This Kingdom enters history in two simple stages. First, there is a temporary heavenly reign of God’s incarnate Son and Messiah, a reign that is spiritual only, and entered by the new birth, repentance, and faith in Christ. Then comes an eternal earthly reign of the Father (and the Son), a reign that is both spiritual and physical, and that is entered through the Resurrection at Christ’s return. Very importantly, the two stages of the one Kingdom are separated by a single Consummation, set to occur at the one Parousia (i.e., Coming in glory) of the Lord Jesus Christ at the end of the present evil age.
The second (and most challenging) theme is the proper interpretation of Old Testament prophecies of the Kingdom (OTKP). According to amillennarians, all such prophecies are veiled revelations of the two-staged Kingdom introduced by Christ and the New Covenant. They speak either of the temporary heavenly reign of the Son, or of the eternal earthly reign of the Father (and the Son), or of both; or they speak of the one Consummation separating the two.
Amillennarians contend that in OTKP the Holy Spirit was pleased to use images drawn from the physical life of ethnic Israel under the Old Covenant to speak typologically and figuratively about spiritual (and physical) life of spiritual Israel under the New Covenant.4 Thus, the true sphere of fulfillment of OTKP is not a future earthly millennium, but the two-staged spiritual reign of God and Christ, a reign that is created by the New Covenant, and that is experienced by the one true family and nation of God, comprised of the believing Jews and Gentiles of all time. New Testament revelation enables the Church to unveil and decode OTKP, and therefore to see that in it God was speaking of—and to—her!
The third (and most controversial) theme is the millennium, the 1000-year reign of Christ (exclusively) spoken of in Revelation 20. Amillennarians believe that the 1000 years symbolize the inter-adventual era: the season between Christ’s first coming and his last. During this era (now some 2000 years long) the Holy Trinity (3) applies the redemption accomplished by Christ, and so completes (10) the ingathering of the Church (10 x 10 x 10). During this era the High King of heaven rules directly over the Church, and providentially over the whole world. During this era he empowers the Church to preach the gospel to all creation. And during this era grants her good success, for because of his work on earth Christ has bound Satan so that he cannot deceive the nations. That is, he cannot prevent God from shining the light of the truth of the Gospel into the hearts of his elect people, nor can he (until the very end) use his deceptive powers to assemble the nations for the Last Battle against the Church.
The fourth (and most fascinating) theme is the Consummation. Amillennarians teach that there is just one of them, set to occur at the one Parousia of Christ, when he returns in glory with all the holy angels to rescue his Bride from the Last Battle, raise the dead, transform the living, judge the world in righteousness in the skies above the earth, consign evil men and angels to eternal punishment, and create new heavens and a new earth: the eternal home of the triune God, all the saints, and all the angels. Here we encounter the glory of amillennial eschatology, which alone sets before us the majestic manner in which God the Father will be pleased to cap the redemptive work of his Son and crown his exaltation. Again, this soul-stirring scenario has been the majority view of the universal Church up until modern times.
Amillennialism: An Eschatology for These Last Days
For the last 150 years the evangelical Church has been deeply embroiled in the GETD. As many of us know all too well, eschatological views abound. Curious Christians must now reckon with amillennialism, (two varieties of) historic premillennialism, postmillennialism, dispensational premillennialism, and (two varieties of) preterism. In my books and essays I have tried to help believers process each of these views. And along the way I have shared and defended my conviction that amillennialism is indeed the true teaching of Scripture.
In the following remarks I again want to address all Christians, but especially Christian leaders. Here I will spotlight five crucial characteristics of amillennial eschatology, characteristics that demonstrate its spiritual power and importance, and that show us why it is perfectly suited to carry the true spiritual Church safely through the last of the last days, and on into the consummated Kingdom of God.
First, amillennialism powerfully caps and crystallizes the entire biblical worldview. The reasons are many. It gives us the one true timeline of Salvation History: Creation, Probation, Fall, the OT Era of Promise and Preparation, and the two-staged NT Era of Fulfillment, comprised of the temporary spiritual Kingdom of the Son, the Consummation at Christ’s return, and the eternal earthly Kingdom of the Father (and the Son) in the World to Come. It gives us the heart of Salvation History: the Eternal Covenant in Christ, planned before the founding of the world; similarly, it also gives us the body of Salvation History: the various administrations of the Covenant, from creation to consummation. Finally, it gives us the capstone of biblical cosmology, which, in order to be complete, must include not only of the origin, purpose, and structure of the universe, but also its final destiny: the Consummation of all things. All of us have a God-given desire to behold “the Big Picture” of the universe, life, and man; all of us desire to discover and embrace the one true worldview. Amillennialism alone supplies it.
Secondly, amillennialism opens up and integrates the entire Bible. Here again several steps are involved. The journey begins at the Mount of Transfiguration, where amillennarians bid us hear afresh God the Father identifying his Son as the supreme spiritual Teacher of the human race (Matt. 17:1-8). Yes, in the past Moses and the OT prophets spoke truth to us, but only in “many portions and various ways,” (Heb. 1:1). Therefore, we dare not take our theological cues from them, for in the progress of divine revelation Christ alone has brought us “true truth,” complete truth, definitive truth. Only in Christ, and not in Moses or the prophets, can seekers find all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, including eschatological knowledge (Col. 2:3).5
Accordingly, we must turn first and foremost to the Didactic New Testament (DNT): the specifically teaching portions of the Gospels, the book of Acts, and the Epistles. Here we have the one classroom in which the Teacher unveils God’s definitive truth, and also the one courtroom in which all theological disputes must be decided. Here we receive clear answers to the four underlying issues in the GETD. Here we discover the New Covenant Hermeneutic (NCH): the New Testament method for interpreting the Old Testament in general, and OTKP in particular. Here is where we learn to decipher, understand, and enjoy the “dark” (i.e., typological) sayings of OT history, the Mosaic Law, OTKP, and the Revelation.
And the result? Suddenly the thousand tiles of biblical revelation coalesce into a single, stunningly beautiful mosaic. Suddenly we behold the face of Christ, the blessings of the Eternal Covenant, and the two-staged Kingdom of God throughout all Scripture: whether darkly prefigured, promised, and predicted in the Old Testament, or brightly manifested, proclaimed, expounded, applied, and eagerly embraced in the New. Gladly and gratefully we now realize that the Lord has definitively opened our minds to understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:25), and that now our Bible is fully illumined, integrated, and unveiled (Matt. 13:51-52; 2 Cor. 4:1-6).
Lest she be swept away by the strong ideological crosscurrents of the last days, the Church must be anchored to total truth. By opening up and integrating the entire Bible, the DNT and the NCH—twin pillars of a soundly biblical eschatology—give her total truth. As she takes fresh hold of it, the Lord takes fresh hold of her, keeping her safe, sound, and strong all the way to the end.
Thirdly, amillennialism strengthens the preaching and teaching ministry of the Church. This is a corollary of the previous two points. By giving God’s people total biblical truth, amillennialism enables them to proclaim that truth. In particular, it empowers evangelists, pastors, and teachers not only to preach Christ from the four Gospels and the epistles, but also from OT history and Law, OTKP, and the Revelation. It empowers them not only to proclaim the Lord’s birth, life, death, and resurrection, but also his ascension, session, present heavenly reign, and future coming again. And it mightily empowers them to proclaim the one Consummation that Christ will effect at his return: the one Resurrection, the one Judgment, the one Regeneration of all things, and the one new World to Come. Amillennialism enables God’s gospel messengers to bring the full force of his total truth to bear upon saints and sinners alike. The saints and sinners of these last days will need it as never before.
Fourthly, amillennialism prepares the Church for the Last Battle. Like the good Father who gave it to us, this eschatology does not indulge in escapist fantasies or wishful thinking. It tells us honestly and comfortingly that the true spiritual Church (Rev. 11:1-3) is destined to follow in the footsteps of her Master; that for a brief season at the end of the age she will endure severe marginalization, unfair vilification, gross injustice, widespread rejection, and (institutional) death. However, it also tells us that at the Parousia she will swiftly rise again to final vindication, eternal life, and joy inexpressible and full of glory. As it is written, “A disciple is not above his teacher, neither is a servant above his master. It is enough for a disciple to be like his teacher, and a servant like his master” (Matt. 10:24-25). The saints will be like their Master in (re)birth, life, ministry, joy, hardship, death, resurrection, ascension, and eternal glory. To all eternity they will confess that it was enough and more than enough (Col. 3:1-3; Rev. 11:1-14).
Finally, amillennialism revives the Church with a fresh revelation of the glory of Christ. It does so by opening her eyes to the true nature of her Lord’s exaltation, especially to his session, heavenly reign, and return in glory for the Consummation of all things. For a longish season smoke ascending from the abyss has obscured this particular sun (Rev. 9:1-2). Now, however, the Lord is clearing the air. As he does, the Bride beholds her King afresh: not only up above, but also up ahead. The vision is breathtaking, filling her eyes with his deity, sovereignty, mighty power, and fervent love for his people. As never before she beholds the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, and is thereby changed from one degree of glory to the next (2 Cor. 3:18).
In sum, amillennialism is indeed an eschatology perfectly suited for these last days. Opening a window onto the one true Consummation, it lets in light from God’s one true future, pouring that light into the perplexing present, and filling the souls of the saints with clarity, conviction, joy, and the zeal of Christ himself.
Thus filled, the Bride becomes sound in faith, strong for outreach, steady in the midst of birth pains, proof against lies and error, holy against the rising tide of lawlessness, and courageous in the face of persecution—always looking beyond the Last Battle to the eternal joys of the Marriage Feast of the Lamb.
Indeed, as her heavenly Husband washes her eyes with the water of his Word, the veil between the present and the future grows strangely thin—so thin that she seems to see him standing right before her.
With love and longing, she cries, “Come!”
With love and longing he replies, “Yes, my Beloved, I am coming quickly. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life!”
- For a short introduction to the state of world missions see this excellent essay, posted at the Joshua Project.
- For two essays dealing with God’s plan for ethnic Israel, click here and here.
- Here are some further recent developments suggesting that the Consummation may well be near: (1) the current breaking off of (many of) the Gentile nations, which, according to my reading of Romans 11:15 and 21, precedes the grafting in of latter day ethnic Israel and “life from the dead”; (2) the sudden advent of modern communications and military technology, with their extraordinary power to spiritually corrupt and physically destroy; (3) the fact that the apostle John said he was living in “the last hour” (1 John 2:18), implying (for at least one pastor I know) that we must be living in “the last second”; (4) the plausible eschatology of Irenaeus, who suggested that God meant each of the six days of creation to correspond to 1000 literal years, which, if true, would place us at the dawn of the seventh day, the eternal day of mankind’s eschatological rest.
- The NT requires us to distinguish between two kinds OT Messianic prophecy. The first I call “simple OT Messianic prophecy.” It is simple in the sense of being straightforward; that is, all such prophecies were literally fulfilled at or around the first coming of Christ, between the time of his incarnation and his session at the right hand of the Father. The second I call “Old Testament Kingdom Prophecy” (OTKP). Prophecies in this category are more complex. They are fulfilled on or after the Day of Pentecost, when the KOG entered the world and the New Covenant went into effect. Prophecies of this kind use OT types and shadows to speak figuratively of the two-staged Kingdom of God created by Christ under the New Covenant. Accordingly, it is necessary for the NT interpreter to employ the New Covenant Hermeneutic (NCH)—the NT method for interpreting the OT generally, and OTKP in particular—in order to decode these “mysterious” OT utterances. For more on this subject, click here.
- This, I believe, is the fundamental misstep of dispensational premillennialism. Neglecting the DNT and the NCH, dispensational interpreters have chosen instead to build their system on OT ground, and in particular on literalist interpretations of the prophecies of Daniel, Zechariah, and the Revelation (which, in some ways, is the most Old Testament of New Testament books). In so doing they have entangled huge swaths of the evangelical church in a faulty theology that (unintentionally) dishonors God’s appointed Teacher, and therefore greatly confuses his people. My hope and prayer is that the High King will soon visit my dispensational brothers and bring them (and the whole evangelical Church) home to the classic amillennial faith of our Protestant forefathers.