NOTE: This essay brings together excerpts from my book, The Great End Time Debate: Issues, Options, and Amillennial Answers (Redemption Press). Please see that book for further thoughts and clarifications. Also, please be sure to click on the various links scattered throughout the article. These will offer biblical support for my general assertions about the Kingdom of God, Old Testament Kingdom Prophecy (OTKP), the Millennium, and the Consummation.

Exposition
(For a time line of Dispensational Premillennialism, click here)

Dispensational Premillennialism is a recent, complex, and increasingly controversial form of modern Historic Premillennialism (HP). It was developed in mid-19th century England by John Darby, a leader of the small but influential Plymouth Brethren Movement. In a day when theological liberalism was rotting out the foundations of mainline Protestantism, dispensationalists held loyally to a high view of Scripture and so won favor among biblical conservatives. Also, as the murderous 20th century progressed, the dispensational interpretation of biblical prophecy—which was decidedly pessimistic about the future of world society—seemed to make good sense of the tumultuous times in which people were living.

As a result, Dispensationalism enjoyed a large following. It included a number of devoted apologists: men like C. I. Scofield, Harry Ironside, William Blackstone, and A. C. Gabelein. Evangelist D. L. Moody did much to spread the new eschatology among Christian laymen, as did the popular Scofield Reference Bible and the Prophetic Conference Movement. In time, dispensationally oriented Bible colleges and seminaries began to spring up here and there, from which there flowed a continuous stream of teachers, pastors, writers, and conference speakers. Familiar contemporary proponents of Dispensationalism include Jonathan Cahn, William Criswell, Norman Geisler, Dave Hunt, Thomas Ice, John Hagee, David Jeremiah, Tim LaHaye, Hal Lindsey, John MacArthur, Joel Rosenberg, Charles Ryrie, Chuck Smith, Charles Swindoll, Jack Van Impe, and John Walvoord.

Two Peoples, Two Plans, Seven Dispensations

At the heart of Dispensationalism lies a novel and highly controversial thesis, namely, that God has always had two different plans for two different people groups: one for Israel and another for the Church (comprised largely of Gentile believers). This conviction is reflected in its picture of Salvation History, which is divided into seven different dispensations. These are defined as seasons during which God tests people in a particular way. Accordingly, dispensationalists break up the Era of Promise and Preparation (i.e., the era stretching from the fall to the advent of Christ) into four separate dispensations: the dispensation of Conscience (Adam), Human Government (Noah), Promise (Abraham), and Law (Moses/Israel).

Among these, the fourth is of special importance, since it was during this troubled season of Israel’s moral failure that God, through his OT prophets, ever-increasingly promised that he would restore his (scattered) people to their homeland in Canaan, send them a Messianic King, and set up a global theocracy with Israel as the head and the Gentiles as the tail. Dispensationalists interpret these OTKP’s quite literally, and therefore anticipate a future “dispensation of the Kingdom” in which God’s earthly people—ethnic Israel—will again be living in Canaan/Palestine, reigning triumphantly with their Messiah over the other nations of the world.

This brings us to the NT era. Here God finally sends his Son into the world for the express purpose of offering the promised theocratic Kingdom to Israel. However, as the four gospels make painfully clear, Israel largely refuses to submit to Christ, thereby failing their test and forfeiting the theocratic Kingdom. But this does not spell the death of God’s Kingdom promises. Instead, God graciously postpones the dispensation of the Kingdom until the Millennium (Matt. 11:20f). Meanwhile, about mid-way through his earthly ministry, Christ unveils a new plan by which God will henceforth create a new (heavenly) people and introduce a new dispensation: the Dispensation of the Church, or the so-called Church Age (Matt. 13:1f). Some dispensationalists speak of this dispensation as the “mystery form” of the Kingdom, since here Christ does indeed rule over his saints, but only inwardly, by his Spirit.

Very importantly, dispensationalists insist that this new plan was a pure mystery. That is, the OT prophets never foresaw or spoke of it at all. Rather, Christ introduced it altogether de novo during the days of his flesh when he realized that the Jewish nation would soon reject him. And that, of course, is precisely what happened, with the result that on the Day of Pentecost the crucified, risen, ascended, and glorified Christ did indeed give birth to a heavenly people, pouring out the Holy Spirit on his disciples and seating them—along with all who would afterwards believe their report—in heavenly places at the Father’s own right hand.

The Consummation

This brings us to the most complicated part of the dispensational system, the part that deals with the Consummation. I will sketch it as simply as I can.

First comes the secret Rapture. This is “phase one” of the Lord’s Parousia, the phase of his Coming in which Christ descends from heaven for his saints. When he does, he will resurrect the saints of old, transform the living believers, gather them all to himself in the sky, and then take them with him to heaven, where, for the next seven years, they will enjoy the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Again, the Rapture is a “secret” event: Here, no (unbelieving) person on earth sees Christ or the departure of his glorified Church. Also, it is an “imminent” event: Since God has not given us any signs by which we might know that it is at hand, no one can know when the great catching up will occur. The saints must be prepared for an “any-moment Rapture.”

Next comes the Tribulation. Based on a unique and quite literal interpretation of Daniel 9 (see below), dispensationalists argue that the Tribulation will last for seven literal years. During this time 144,000 converted Jews will preach “the gospel of the Kingdom” to all nations. This is the good news of Christ’s coming millennial reign, and also of access to that reign through personal faith in him. As the 144,000 preach, many Jews and Gentiles will believe. However, mid-way through the Tribulation the Antichrist will step onto the stage of history. When he does, the whole world will follow after him, believers will undergo fierce persecution, and God will pour out dreadful warning judgments upon the earth. This season of three and a half years—referred to as The Great Tribulation—concludes with the Battle of Armageddon: a military conflict centered in Palestine that will scarcely get under way before Christ returns visibly, in power and glory, to rescue his beleaguered people and destroy their enemies.

This particular return is “phase two” of the Parousia (and is also called the Revelation). Here Christ will come with his saints (and all the holy angels). His feet will touch down on the Mount of Olives. More Jews will be converted. OT saints—and believers who died during the Tribulation—will be raised from the dead. Then Christ will judge the living Gentile nations, punishing many, but permitting those who treated his “brethren” (i.e., the Lord’s Jewish emissaries) well to enter the Millennium. Likewise, he will also judge between believing and unbelieving Jews. Finally, he will cast Satan into the abyss for 1000 literal years. Then all the glorified saints will return to heaven and the thousand-year Kingdom Age will begin.

Throughout the Millennium Christ will reign on earth and over the earth from the earthly Jerusalem. A glorious rebuilt temple will become the center of the global worship of God. In commemoration of Christ’s atoning death, priests will again offer animal sacrifices and observe Jewish feast days. Though sin and death will be marginally present, the Millennium will largely be a time of widespread peace, prosperity, longevity, righteousness, and joy. On those rare occasions when rebels rise up against their King, Christ will swiftly punish them with a rod of iron, possibly with help from certain glorified saints living on earth or sent from above. At the end of the Millennium God will permit Satan and his demon hosts to arise from the abyss and deceive the nations one final time. A final battle will ensue, wherein a confederacy of rebellious nations will attack the camp of the (largely Jewish) saints. But God (or Christ) will quickly intervene, destroy his foes, cast Satan into hell, and raise the millennial saints from the dead.

Now comes the Last Judgment. Here the focus is upon the unbelieving dead, who will be raised and brought before the Great White Throne, where Christ will judge them according to their works, and then cast them into the Lake of Fire.

Finally, God (or Christ) creates the World to Come: the new heavens and the new earth. This is the eternal home of the redeemed. The Church—God’s heavenly people—descends to the new earth to join Israel, God’s earthly people. Though remaining forever distinct (at least according to some dispensationalists), both now live and serve together in the eternal Kingdom of God and Christ.

Current Status

Among modern scholars dispensationalism has largely fallen out of favor. Nevertheless it is still preached by a great many pastors, for which reason it has also acquired a large following among the people in the pews. Indeed, for over 150 years evangelical Christians have been saturated with dispensational thinking, whether in sermons, prophetic conferences, novels, or movies. If, then, this system is truly is in error, many of God’s children will need considerable time, effort, and eschatological re-training to unlearn it. But if they are Good Bereans, they will be willing to pay the price.

Critique

As ever, the most effective way to understand, evaluate, and critique any given eschatology is to see what it has to say about the four underlying issues in the Great End Time Debate (GETD): The Kingdom of God, the proper interpretation of OTKP, the meaning of the Millennium, and the nature of the Consummation. Let us do so now, taking a close look at Dispensational Premillennialism.

View of the Kingdom

Dispensationalism misunderstands the Kingdom of God in the following three ways.

First, it misunderstands the nature of the Kingdom. Classic dispensationalism identifies the Kingdom as a future earthly theocratic reign of Christ over ethnic Israel and the nations. However, the Didactic New Testament (DNT: i.e., the teaching portions of the NT) identifies the Kingdom as a direct reign of God the Father, through Christ the Son, by the Holy Spirit, over all who have entered the New Covenant by faith. Thus, the Kingdom has nothing to do with a return to the theocratic institutions of the Mosaic Law, all of which have been fulfilled and rendered obsolete by Christ and the New Covenant. (More here)

Secondly, it misunderstands the structure of the Kingdom. As in the case of Historic Premillennialism, so here: Dispensationalists look for three stages of the Kingdom, whereas the DNT looks only for two. (More here and here)

Thirdly, dispensationalists misunderstand the people of the Kingdom. According to the DNT they are a great multitude taken out of every tribe, tongue, people, and nation, bound as one through their common faith in Jesus Christ (Matt. 11:28f; John 6:37, 44, 65; Eph. 2:11-3:13). This is the true spiritual seed of Abraham (Gal. 3:29). This is the true Israel of God (Gal. 6:16). The DNT is emphatic: God does not have two separate families, nor does he have two separate plans for those families: a Gospel of the Kingdom for the Jews, and a Gospel of Grace for the Gentiles. Through Christ, God has broken down the middle wall separating Jew and Gentile (Eph. 2:14). Henceforth, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28). Henceforth, there is one flock (John 10), one Woman (Rev. 12), one Bride (Eph. 5), one Wife (Rev. 21), one Body (Eph. 5), one New Man (Eph. 2), one Olive Tree (Rom. 11), one City (Rev. 21), one Royal Priesthood (1 Pet. 2), and one Holy Nation (6:16; 1 Pet. 2). Therefore, let no man rebuild what God has forever torn down (Gal. 2:18); and let no man separate what God has forever joined together (Matt. 19:6).

View of OTKP

Like many Historic Premillennarians, dispensationalists interpret OTKP quite literally. Thus, the hermeneutical problems of the latter are the same as those of the former. Their literal approach entangles them in historical anachronisms, apparent contradictions, a resurrection of the OT Law, a rebuilding of the wall between Jew and Gentile, and the problem of millennial conditions said to endure forever. And this in turn brings them into direct conflict with NT teaching on the nature and structure of the Kingdom introduced under the New Covenant. (More here and here)

Thankfully, progressive dispensationalists have begun to feel the force of these objections. Recognizing that the Kingdom is indeed “already” and “not yet,” they acknowledge that even now the greater David is reigning on his heavenly throne, and that under the New Covenant the Church is indeed participating in the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants. Accordingly, these interpreters (who nevertheless still adhere to the basic the dispensational scheme of Salvation History) argue that OTKP has a double fulfillment: It speaks both of the Church Era and also of a future Jewish millennium. Amillennarians acknowledge this as a small step in the right direction. It is, however, but a first step in a long journey that will only end when dispensationalists finally come home to the eschatology of the Bible and of their Protestant forefathers.

View of the Revelation

The dispensational interpretation of Daniel 9:24-27 is the rock of dispensational theology. Broadly, it grounds their conviction that God has a double purpose in Salvation History: the salvation of the Church (his heavenly people), and the salvation ethnic Israel (his earthly people). More narrowly, it governs their understanding of the Revelation. Very importantly, dispensationalists find the perceived harmony between Daniel 9 and the Revelation compelling: The one seems clearly to reinforce the other, and so to vindicate the entire dispensational system. Accordingly, in this this section we must spend some extra time discussing these crucial matters.

I will do so in three steps. First, we’ll look briefly at the dispensational interpretation of Daniel’s famous prophecy of the seventy weeks (Dan. 9). Next, we’ll discuss their interpretation of the Revelation, emphasizing its (alleged) correspondence to Daniel 9, and offering amillennial critiques along the way. Finally, I will conclude with some remarks designed to show why dispensational interpreters have so grievously misunderstood this precious book, the Grand Finale of all Scripture.

  1. The Dispensational Interpretation of Daniel’s Seventy Sevens

Here, very briefly, is the standard dispensational interpretation of Daniel 9:24-27.

The theme of the grand theme prophecy is not the future of spiritual Israel (i.e. all God’s people, Jew and Gentile), but of ethnic Israel. Daniel’s people and Daniel’s city are not spiritually circumcised Jews and Gentiles, but rather the Jewish race and nation (Dan. 9:24). Throughout OT times God promised the latter a theocratic kingdom, mediated by his Messiah. But before Israel can enter this promised Kingdom Age, it must first traverse Daniel’s “seventy sevens.” These are seventy weeks of calendar years, totaling 490 years. The 69 weeks of verse 25 began with Artaxerxes’ decree to rebuild Jerusalem (445 BC); they ended at the birth (or triumphal entry) of Christ. Verse 26 gives us the events of the 69th week, in which Christ was rejected, and after which the Roman general Titus came and destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. But now something unexpected happens. At this point in the prophecy, Daniel leaps over the entire Church Age (now some 2000 years long), thereby rendering God’s dealings with his heavenly people (i.e., the Church) a mystery: a hidden purpose and plan later to be unveiled by Christ.

Accordingly, verse 27 gives us future events that are set to occur during the seventieth week, the week that follows the secret Rapture of the Church. Here, “God’s prophetic time clock” begins to tick again; here he resumes his redemptive dealings with the (physical) sons of Abraham. Dispensationalists refer to this week of seven years as the Tribulation. At the beginning of the Tribulation, the Antichrist makes a covenant with ethnic Israel. In the middle of the week he breaks that covenant, suppresses Jewish worship, and defiles the (restored) Jewish temple. This marks the beginning of the Great Tribulation, a 3½ year season of dreadful divine judgments upon the world, and of intense persecution for believing Jews and Gentiles. At their end Christ will return in glory, destroy the Antichrist, and welcome the Jewish saints who have survived the Tribulation into the promised Kingdom Age. According to Revelation 20, this age will last 1000 literal years. (More here)

       2. The Dispensational Interpretation of the Revelation

In the paragraphs ahead I will sketch the dispensational interpretation of each section of the Revelation, and then offer a brief amillennial reply based on all we learned earlier about the purpose, literary genre, structure, and themes of the Revelation  (More here, here, and here)

Dispensationalists: Chapter 1 of the Revelation gives us a vision of the exalted Christ, the One who will first bring to pass God’s purpose for the Church (Rev. 2-5), and thereafter God’s purpose for ethnic Israel (Rev. 6-20).

Amillennarians: Yes, chapter 1 gives us a revelation of the exalted Christ, the Lord of the remainder of Salvation History. But no, the book does not give us God’s two-fold purpose and plan, first for the Church, and then ethnic Israel. Rather, it gives us God’s singular purpose and plan for his one and only people: the Church, comprised of elect Jews and Gentiles of all time. Here, however, the emphasis falls upon God’s New Covenant people, as the High King of Heaven enables them to make their difficult spiritual pilgrimage through the lengthy Era of Gospel Proclamation (Rev. 12).

Dispensationalists: Chapters 2-3 give us the Lord’s messages to the seven Churches of Asia. Real as they were, these churches also symbolize the universal Church, and (for some interpreters) the historical stages through which she must pass over the course of the Church Age. This age is the “mystery parenthesis,” the season of Salvation History that neither Daniel nor any of the other the OT prophets foresaw. It is the age that Christ unveiled when, in anticipation of his rejection by Israel, he said, “I will build my Church” (Matt. 16:18) Thus, in chapters 2-3 Christ is speaking to the Church, about the Church, in the Church Age. Soon, however, he will be speaking to Israel, about Israel (and the nations), during the Tribulation, and on into the Millennium.

 Amillennarians: Yes, the true nature of the Church, as the spiritual Body of the Messiah, was a mystery to the OT prophets (Eph. 3). However, the prophets did indeed foresee the Church, and were moved by the Spirit to speak about her, albeit under a veil of OT imagery. And this is true of the prophet Daniel himself, who was actually speaking about the destiny of the Church in Daniel 9! As for the Revelation, in chapters 2-3 the High Prophet of Heaven speaks to the Church about the various strengths and weaknesses that she will manifest during her pilgrimage to the World to Come. Then, in chapters 6-20, he speaks to the Church about the persons, powers, events, and institutions she will encounter along the way. In the Revelation, ethnic Israel is never in view, whereas Israel’s anti-type, the Church, is always and only in view.      

Dispensationalists: In chapters 4-5 we have John’s vision of heaven, its occupants, and the worship that fills it. The apostle hears a voice, saying, “Come up here” (Rev. 4:1). For many interpreters, this is a veiled reference to the secret Rapture. For all interpreters, the 24 elders represent the raptured, glorified, rewarded, and worshiping Church. In her presence, and eliciting her praise, Christ receives from the Father the title deed to the earth and prepares to unfasten the seven seals. When the unfastening begins, so too does the 70th week of Daniel (i.e., the Tribulation). That is, the exalted Christ launches God’s eschatological dealings with ethnic Israel and the nations, all with a view to bringing in the (1000-year) Kingdom Age.

 Amillennarians: No, John’s journey to heaven does not picture a secret Rapture (a doctrine not found in the DNT). It does, however, remind us that through the new birth all the members of Christ’s Church are seated in the heavenly places in/with him. As for the scene in heaven, it is timeless, and therefore depicts the worship of all God’s people of all times: the Church. She is comprised of OT saints (symbolized by the 12 patriarchs) and NT saints (symbolized by the 12 apostles). The scroll in the Father’s hand is a last will and testament containing the eternal inheritance of the saints promised in the Covenant of Grace: the Gospel (Rev. 21-22). However, before they can receive that inheritance the High King of heaven, who prevailed upon the earth for the salvation of his people, must first unfasten its seven seals. That is, he must preside over the various historical events through which his redemptive work will be proclaimed and applied to the hearts of his elect. He must superintend the pilgrimage of the Church throughout the Era of Gospel Proclamation, after which he will come again to consummate God’s plan in final judgment and redemption, and bring in the new heavens and the new earth, the eternal home and inheritance of the saints.

Dispensationalists: Chapters 6-19 give us the Tribulation, the seventieth week of Daniel. In essence it is a seven-year season of world evangelization, during which time 144,000 redeemed Israelites will proclaim the Gospel of the (coming millennial) Kingdom amidst ever-increasing and ever-intensifying providential judgments, culminating in a supernatural judgment at the personal Coming (Revelation) of Christ (Rev. 7:1-8, 19:11-21). The judgments are serial in nature, progressing from the seven seals (6-7), through the seven trumpets (8-11), and on to the seven bowls (15-16). Writes John MacArthur, “The seal judgments include all the judgments to the end. The seventh seal contains the 7 trumpets, the seventh trumpet contains the 7 bowls.” Midway through the Tribulation, the Antichrist (i.e., the Beast) will arrive on the scene, break his covenant with Israel, defile the temple, and devastate Jerusalem; thus do the 3½ years of the Great Tribulation begin (Rev. 13:5). This section ends with chapter 19, which alone of all the chapters in this section gives us the second coming of Christ in glory (19:11-16), the demise of Christ’s enemies gathered against Israel at Armageddon (19:17-21), and the close of the Great Tribulation.

 Amillennarians: No, these chapters do not speak of a future seven-year tribulation. Rather, together with chapter 20, they give us six parallel recapitulations of the course and character of the High King’s heavenly reign. Each one begins at the beginning of the Era of Gospel Proclamation and ends with a more or less symbolic representation of the return of Christ in final judgment and redemption. Literal interpretations of the 144,000, the seal judgments, the trumpet judgments, the bowl judgments, the two witnesses, the permutations of 3½, the mark of the Beast, and the Battle of Armageddon all wreak havoc with the text. They miss the symbolic meaning of all such imagery, needlessly straining credulity and engendering crippling fears. The dispensational interpretation works further harm to the Church by projecting the fulfillment of these chapters onto another people and into a distant (post-Rapture) future. Because the flock of God is journeying through the howling wilderness of this present evil age, it urgently needs to hear the voice of its heavenly Shepherd (Rev. 12:1-17). Here and elsewhere dispensationalism cuts it off. (More here)

Dispensationalists: Chapter 20 gives us the goal and aftermath of Daniel’s 70 weeks: the 1000-year Kingdom Age in which all OTKP is (literally) fulfilled at last. First Satan and his demons are cast into the abyss, paving the way for vastly improved spiritual and physical conditions upon the earth. Then, in “the first resurrection,” Christ raises the OT saints and the Tribulation martyrs. They, along with those who came to faith during the Tribulation, enter the Kingdom Age and rule with Christ throughout the Millennium. OT temple worship, centered in Jerusalem, is revived, but only to commemorate the finished work of Christ. Again, the Millennium is basically a lengthy season of peace, prosperity, longevity, righteousness, and joy. Nevertheless, as time passes many of the children of the tribulation saints fall into unbelief. This results in a series of dramatic eschatological events that bring the Millennium to a close: the release of Satan from the abyss, a gathering of rebellious nations against Jerusalem, a divine judgment by fire, a second resurrection (this time of the unrighteous dead), and a final Judgment of all unbelievers at the Great White Throne.

 Amillennarians: No, Revelation 20 does not describe a future 1000-year reign of Christ upon the earth. Rather, it gives us a seventh and final recapitulation of the course and character of his heavenly reign. During this time, which stretches between the Lord’s first and second advents, Satan is bound from deceiving God’s elect, and from gathering the unbelieving world to the Last Battle. It is a long time (symbolized by 1000), but also a finite time, during which the triune God (3) completes (10) the application of the redemption purchased by Christ (10 x 10 x 10). During this time the souls of believers who die in the faith are raised to spiritual perfection and reign in life with Christ in heaven above. This is the first resurrection, a spiritual resurrection that secures the saints’ bodily resurrection at the Parousia of Christ. At the end of the age Satan is released from his restraints and gathers the unbelieving world against the Church for the Last Battle. But Christ returns in fire to destroy his enemies, raise the dead of all time, consign the unrighteous to the Lake of Fire, and bring in the eternal World to Come. (More here)   

Dispensationalists: We hold different views on chapters 21-22. All of us look for new heavens and a new earth. All look for a physical city, the eternal habitation of the saints. Many look for a physical tree and water of life, albeit with spiritual properties and benefits. Some say that the middle wall between Jew and Gentile will be removed once and for all; others say it will endure forever.

 Amillennarians: Yes, chapters 21-22 give us the eternal World to Come; but no, we should not bring a literalist hermeneutic into it. Here, the Church—comprised of all God’s people of all time—is not only the Bride of Christ, but also the City of God. She is the Bridal City, forever dwelling in glory in the new creation. The throne of God and the Lamb, the river of the water of life, the tree of life and its fruits and leaves . . . all are spiritual realities, rather than physical objects. They are symbols, teaching us that the sovereign Father and Son, by the Holy Spirit, will forever refresh, nourish, and maintain the good health of their beloved children and Bride in the glorious World to Come.

     3. Why the Dispensational Interpretation Fails

Our dispensational brothers have stumbled badly in their interpretation of the Revelation. How so? I would answer as follows:

First, they have misunderstood the intended audience of the book, which is the Church of all times and places.

They have misunderstood the nature and purpose of the book, failing to see that it is an extended prophecy, designed to edify, exhort, and encourage the Church as she makes her pilgrimage through the howling wilderness of this present evil world and on into the Promised Land.

They have misunderstood the underlying theme of the book, which is the exaltation of Christ—the High King of Heaven—who, at the Father’s right hand, rules heaven and earth for the ingathering, upbuilding, preservation, and final glorification of the Church.

They have misunderstood the literary genre of the book, which is biblical apocalyptic, and therefore interpreted the persons, places, objects, and events of the Revelation literally instead of figuratively (i.e., in terms of the spiritual realities previously disclosed in the DNT).

They have misunderstood the structure of the book, failing to see that its five major blocs are meant as a celebration of the heavenly reign of the exalted Christ, and that the very lengthy fourth bloc (chapters 6-20) gives us parallel symbolic representations of the course and character of the High King’s reign. They have also failed to see that this structure rules out their futurist interpretation, but instead mandates an “idealist” interpretation, according to which the key symbols (i.e., the Woman, the Dragon, the Beast, the False Prophet, the Harlot, Babylon the Great, etc.) all stand for persons, institutions, or events that Christ’s Church will encounter again and again throughout her historical pilgrimage. (More here)

Finally, they have misunderstood the ancillary purpose of the Revelation, which is to give us the Grand Finale of Scripture: a biblical movement that introduces no new themes (such as a future millennium), but instead simply rehearses and celebrates all that has been previously disclosed in the Bible, and especially in the master key to the Bible: the Didactic New Testament.

In short, our dispensationalist brothers have stumbled over the Revelation because, in trying to understand it, they turned away from the High Prophet of Heaven and the DNT, choosing instead to impose their novel interpretation of Daniel’s Seventy Weeks upon the Grand Finale of all Scripture. The result has been enormous complexity, and therefore great confusion and controversy. But the cause was simple: They failed to listen to Him (Matt. 17:5).

View of the Consummation

For believers steeped in the DNT, dispensational teaching on the Consummation is painful in the extreme. The essential problem here is that it destroys the Blessed Hope of the Church by breaking God’s one eschatological gem into tiny fragments, and then sewing them like sequins on a false time-line of future Salvation History. The result is still more confusion and controversy, neither of which well serve a people upon whom the ends of the ages have come (1 Cor. 10:11).

In our journey towards eschatological clarity I have sought to address every element of the dispensational Consummation. Working out way through the dispensational time line, let us review what we have learned.

First comes the Rapture, when Christ secretly returns to the earth and removes his glorified Bride to heaven, thereby marking the onset of a seven-year season of tribulation. We have seen, however, that this teaching is based on a faulty exegesis of Daniel 9, and also on a small handful of NT texts forced into its mold. In truth, the catching up of God’s glorified saints occurs at the one Parousia of Christ, when the High King returns in power and glory, raises all the dead of all time, transforms the living, and gathers all men and angels before his throne in the sky for the Judgment (Matt. 13, 25; 1 Thess. 4). (More here)

Next comes the (seven-year) Tribulation, or the 70th week of Daniel. Here, error abounds. The Great Tribulation of Revelation 7:14 is the entire present evil age, begun at the fall and stretching all the way to the Consummation. Now over six millennia long, it has ever been a season of tribulation for the true saints of God. The permutations of 3½ years, found throughout the Revelation (i.e., 42 months, 1260 days, a time, times, and a half a time), recall Elijah’s years in the wilderness, and therefore symbolize the entire Era of Gospel Proclamation as a season of persecution and divine provision (1 Ki. 17:1-6). The “greatest tribulation” of which our Lord spoke in Matthew 24:21 is a brief season of unspecified length, set to occur at the end of the age; a season of affliction for both the Church and the world. Dispensationalists are correct when they identify Daniel’s 70th seven as the final “seven” of Salvation History, the “week” in which the Antichrist will rise to power, deceive the world, and persecute the saints (Dan. 9:27). They err, however, when they identify that “week” as seven literal years. And they further err when they assert that the Church will escape it. Quite the opposite: The Spirit’s main purpose in giving this prophecy is to prepare the saints for the final 69 weeks, and especially for the 70th! In those days the saints must take up the weapons of their warfare afresh, and, as good soldiers of Jesus Christ, fight bravely right up to the last hour of the Last Battle (2 Cor. 10:4; Eph. 6:19f; 2 Tim. 2:3, 4:5). (More here)

Next we have “phase two” of the Parousia: the Revelation of Christ, that is, his visible coming with his saints, at which time he will resurrect only the OT saints and Tribulation martyrs, and welcome Tribulation believers into his millennial Kingdom. We have seen, however, that this truncated view of the Consummation empties it of much of its Christ-centered power and glory. For again, in truth there is only one Consummation of all things, set to occur at the one Parousia. When it is complete, the divine Consummator will lay the shining trophy of the God’s completed Kingdom at his Father’s feet, thereby concluding his Messianic reign, rather than beginning it. (More here)

Next comes the Millennium, or the so-called Kingdom Age. By projecting it into the distant future, dispensationalists misrepresent the true structure of the Kingdom, giving us three stages instead of two. Also, their premillennialism further disrupts the unity of the Consummation by requiring a third coming of Christ at the end of the Millennium. But neither the DNT nor the Revelation support this scenario, teaching as they do that the 1000 years of Revelation 20 symbolize the lengthy era between Christ’s first and second advents.

We conclude, then, that the dispensational view of the Consummation seriously departs from Scripture, robs Christ of his proper glory, and needlessly confuses the saints by breaking up the one Consummation into multiple comings, resurrections, judgments, and transformations of nature. (More here and here)

Conclusion

There are difficult days ahead for the Church. We are swiftly heading for the Last Battle. (More here) As never before, the Body of Christ will need to stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel, and be ever-increasingly energized and encouraged by her one true Blessed Hope (Phil. 1:27; Eph. 4:4). This is not a time for confusion and controversy; it is a time for recovering the historic Blessed Hope of the Church. (More here)

Accordingly, I would urge my dispensational brothers to rethink their position, and to come home to the good old paths of our Protestant forefathers. On that solid ground they stood strong amidst many dangers, toils, and snares. If we will stand with them, we can do the same.

Introductory Note: November 1, 2023:

For many years I have labored in the Word of God, seeking to establish the Lord’s Church in a soundly biblical eschatology. Current events playing out here in the Fall of 2023 confirm the importance our attaining this worthy goal. Otherwise (to paraphrase the apostle) we may be alarmed or suddenly shaken from our presence of mind, whether by a sermon, a blog, or a video, claiming that recent developments in the Middle East signal a pre-tribualtion rapture, or that the Day of the Lord is at hand (2 Thess. 2:1).

Demonstrating the extent to which the evangelical Church remains under the spell of dispensational premillennialism, the present war between Israel and Hamas has triggered a number of sermons on the eschatological significance of “Israel’s Last Battle”, prophetically described in Ezekiel 38-39. The goal of these sermons is to connect that biblical text with supposed fulfillments in the present conflict (e.g., see here).

In the essay below I argue that all such efforts are fundamentally misguided; that they are based upon a literalist hermeneutic that does not abide under the discipline of New Testament theology; that the Spirit’s focus in this text is not on ethnic Israel, but on spiritual Israel, the Church; and that the Last Battle here in view has little or nothing to do with “wars and rumors of wars” in the Middle East, but exclusively with the world-system’s final global assault upon the Church of God, an assault that will swiftly usher in the Second Coming of Christ, the Resurrection of the Dead, the Judgment, and the advent of the World to Come.

Am I therefore saying that the present war in Israel is without eschatological significance? Not at all. For again, it is definitely one of the many wars and rumors of war that herald the coming of the End, though not the imminence of the End (Matt. 24:6-8).

Also, it is not impossible that the current global attack on God’s OT people is, in fact, the last of the many that have bedeviled them down through the centuries; that in the Providence of God this is the one that will lead (multitudes of) them to repentance and faith in Christ, just as Scripture predicts; and if so, that the return of the Lord is indeed at the door, soon to bring with it “life from the dead” for the entire Israel of God and the whole creation (Genesis 45-46; Romans 8, 11; Galatians 6:16). But only time, and the appearance of other important eschatological signs, will tell.

Here, then, is the essay, and my best shot at opening up its deep meaning for God’s latter-day Church. May it help all of God’s eschatological Israel never to give way to fear or be shaken in mind or spirit, but rather to steadfastly occupy until He comes.1

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These mysterious chapters give us Ezekiel’s famous prophecy of the Deception, Destruction, and Disposal of Israel’s great eschatological enemy: Gog and his confederation of evil armies. In the latter days, by divine decree, they all will go up against a people fully restored to the LORD and his covenant blessings, thinking to annihilate them and seize their homeland. But it is Gog and his armies who will be annihilated. Under furious strokes of divine judgment they will suffer complete and everlasting destruction upon the mountains of Israel.

How shall we understand this prophecy?

The answer from our premillennarian brethren is both predictable and disappointing. Embracing prophetic literalism, they argue that Ezekiel is predicting a military war against latter day Jews who are spiritually renewed and happily resettled in their ancestral homeland of Palestine.

But once again there are telling disagreements among interpreters. Some, following the lead of Revelation 20:7-9, place this battle at the end of the Millennium. Others say it will take place just prior to Christ’s Second Coming and the onset the Millennium. This, however, forces the latter group to explain why Ezekiel has the Messiah living in the land before the Last Battle, rather than coming to it afterwards (Ezek. 37:24-25).

There are other problems as well, and of the same kind that appear in all Old Testament Kingdom Prophecy (OTKP). For example, the conspicuous use of figurative language warns against prophetic literalism. But if, in the case before us, the warning is ignored, our text is immediately seen to conflict with other OT prophecies of the Last Battle, entangle us in numerous historical anachronisms, and plunge us into incredulity.

For consider: Would (or could) modern armies bring wooden weapons to the field of battle? Would there be enough such weapons for a nation of millions to use them as fuel for seven years (Ezek. 39:9)? If all the people of the land worked daily for seven months to bury the bodies of their defeated foes, how many millions of corpses would there have to be (Ezek. 39:13)? How could the Israelites bear the stench or avoid the spread of disease?

But if prophetic literalism is not the key, what is? The New Testament (NT) points the way.

As we have seen, according to the NT the Kingdom enters history in two stages: a temporary spiritual Kingdom of the Son, followed by an eternal spiritual and physical Kingdom of the Father (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43; Col. 1:13). Sandwiched between the two stages of the one Kingdom is the Last Battle: the final global clash between God and Satan, Christ and the Antichrist, and the Church and the World. During this time, though only for a brief moment, it will appear to all the world that the Lord’s Church has been destroyed. However, nothing could be farther from the truth, for in fact the Last Battle is the sign and trigger of the Consummation of all things. No sooner has it begun, than Christ himself will come again to rescue his beloved Bride, destroy his enemies, and usher in the eternal Kingdom of the Father (and the Son: Matt. 24:9-28; 2 Thess. 2:3-12; Rev. 11:7-10, 19:17-21, 20:7-10).

These NT mysteries richly illumine large portions of the book of Ezekiel, including our text. In chapters 33-37 Ezekiel prophesied about the Days of the Messiah, and about the great spiritual renewal that he will accomplish among God’s people. In these chapters the prophet is using covenantally conditioned language to speak of the Era of Gospel Proclamation, the season during which God the Father will bring eschatological Israel (i.e., the Church, comprised of believing Jews and Gentiles) into the spiritual Kingdom of his Son (Gal. 6:16).

Later, in chapters 40-48, Ezekiel will encourage the saints with visions of the Everlasting Temple (40-42), the Everlasting Glory (43), the Everlasting Worship (43-46), the Everlasting Wholeness (47), the Everlasting Homeland (47-48:29), and the Everlasting City (48:30-35). In these chapters he is using covenantally conditioned language to picture the glorified Church in the eternal World to Come.

And what is sandwiched between these two great blocs of prophecy? You have guessed correctly: A covenantally conditioned picture of the Last Battle, cast as the Deception, Destruction, and Disposal of Israel’s most fearsome enemy: the armies of Gog.

Keeping these introductory thoughts in mind, let us now begin our journey through Ezekiel 38-39.

The Deception of Gog (38:1-17)

In verses 1-6 God commands Ezekiel to prophesy against Gog—who is consistently represented as a person—and the seven nations that will join him in the eschatological assault against Israel: Meschech, Tubal, Persia, Ethiopia, Libya, Gomer, and Togarmah. The number is symbolic, indicating that these nations typify the entire world. So too does the fact that they are situated to the north, east, and south of Israel. Rev. 20:7-10 further opens up the meaning, declaring that Gog and Magog will be gathered from “the four corners of the earth.” The message, then, is that Gog—unveiled in the NT as a personal antichrist controlled by Satan himself—will gather together the entire world-system for a final attack against the NT people of God: the Church. Her enemies will mean it for evil, but the all-sovereign God of providence, intent on a final majestic display of his glory, will mean it for good (Gen. 50:20; Rom. 8:28, 9:14-18, 11:36; 2 Thess. 2:1ff).

In verses 7-9 God elaborates. The battle will occur “after many days” and “in the latter years”—that is, at the end of the Era of Gospel Proclamation. By his providence God himself will summon his foes, emboldening them to gather together against the LORD and his anointed servants (Ps. 2:1-3; Acts 4:23-31; Rev. 13:7). Accordingly, they will go up against a people gathered out of the nations and henceforth resting securely in their homeland and upon the mountains of Israel (v. 8). That is, they will attack the Church: a people called out of the world-wide Domain of Darkness, and planted in the heavenly places in Christ. Because of man’s sin, those places were long a desolate waste (i.e., uninhabited); but now God’s nation dwells there in peace and security with their mighty risen Lord (Eph. 1:3, 2:6; Col. 3:1-3; Heb. 12:22). Observe again from verse 9 the universality and magnitude of the attack against the Church: “Many peoples” are joined with Gog, and together they cover the land like a cloud (Rev. 13:3, 8, 20:9).

In verses 10-13 God elaborates further, this time probing the evil motivations of Gog and his hordes. Seeing both the prosperity and powerlessness of a peace-loving people who trust in God rather than walls and weapons, they will be emboldened “to capture spoil and to seize plunder” (v. 12). So too will many covetous onlookers, typified by the merchants of Sheba, Dedan, and Tarshsish (v. 13; Rev. 18:15-19). These images speak of spiritual conditions in the last of the last days. Hitherto the Church has enjoyed a wealth of adherents, as well as religious, moral, and cultural influence; now, however, all is attenuated. Spiritually speaking, she is no longer “the navel of the earth,” the spiritual center of human civilization (v. 12). The moral force of the Gospel—and the moral influence of the Church that proclaims it—no longer register on the conscience of a lawless world. Accordingly, it now dawns on the rulers of this present evil age that there is nothing to prevent them from seizing, not simply the property, but also the religious, philosophical, and moral high ground of the followers of the Prince of Peace (Matt. 24:12; 2 Tim. 3:1f; 2 Thess. 2:1ff). Foolishly, they decide to try.

Before pronouncing judgment on his foes, God reiterates his decree one final time (vv. 14-17). Yes, Gog will discern the vulnerability of the LORD’s little flock (v. 14). And yes, a multitude of latter-day nations will follow him in the attack, animated by the same spirit that motivated so many of Israel’s former enemies to invade Palestine from the north (v. 15; Is. 41:25; Jer. 1:13-15, 6:22f). But why are these things so certain? It’s because God himself has ordained them, and because he has done so in order to manifest his glory to all mankind (v. 16). As in the Exodus, so at the Last Battle: God will demonstrate his wrath and make his power known upon vessels fitted for destruction, even as he displays the riches of his glory upon (persecuted) vessels of mercy, whom he lovingly prepared beforehand for glory (Rom. 9:22-23, 2 Thess. 1). Over the course of many years the former prophets spoke of these very things. Why? Because God himself had decreed them (v. 17; Deut. 32:34-43; Is. 34:1-6, 63:1-6, 66:15-16; Joel 3:9-14; Mic. 4:19-23). Amidst all their tribulations the saints are invted to take refuge and comfort in the absolute sovereignty of their covenant-keeping God.

The Destruction of Gog (38:17-23)

Having spoken at length of the Deception of Gog, the LORD now unveils his Destruction (vv. 18-23). When the murderous armies attack his beloved land, he will jealously pour out his fury, anger, and blazing wrath upon them, even as he did upon his uniquely begotten Son, so that his chosen people might be rescued from these most dreadful enemies (vv. 18-19; Ezek. 20:33-35; Matt. 27:4; Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2, 4:10).

The first judgment is an earthquake. It is cosmic in scope, affecting seven sectors of the creation: fish, birds, beasts, all men, all mountains, and all human constructs (vv. 19-20; Heb. 12:29, Rev. 11:3, 16:8). In verses 21-22, seven more judgments are announced: sword, pestilence, blood, overflowing rain, hailstones, fire, and brimstone (Rev. 17:16). The numbers are clearly symbolic, and so too is the message. The NT decodes it. Ezekiel’s catalog of OT punishments symbolizes the one cosmic judgment by fire set to occur at the return of Christ (Matt. 3:12; Luke 17:29; 2 Thess. 1:8, 2 Peter 3:7, 12; Rev. 20:9). When it comes, all men and nations will see and confess that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the indeed the one, true, living, and altogether holy God (v. 23; 2 Thess. 1:3-10, Phil. 2:9-11).

The Disposal of Gog (39:1-20)

Chapter 39 gives us the Disposal of Gog and his hordes. Verses 1-8 begin with a brief recapitulation of his Deception and Destruction, wherein we learn again of the universality (v. 6), purpose (7), and certainty (v. 8) of the coming judgment. Observe from verse 6 that when it does come, all the earth will be living in security. But when people are saying, “Peace and safety,” sudden destruction will come upon them like labor pains upon a pregnant woman; and they will not escape (1 Thess. 5:3).

The theme of verses 9-10 is eschatological pillage and plunder. That the passage is symbolic is clear from the numbers used: six kinds of weapons will be used for fire over the course of seven years. The meaning? Time and again Israel had been pillaged and plundered by her human enemies; the Last Battle will be their last attempt, when fallen man (6) will do his very worst. But here, says God, is where it ends, and where the tables are forever turned. For here eschatological Israel will pillage and plunder all her foes, and for all time; her victory will be complete (7).

 The NT unveils the fulfillment of our text. By God’s decree the saints will have a share in the Judgment. “Do you not realize,” asked the incredulous Paul, “that the saints will judge the world” (Rom. 16:20; 1 Cor. 6:2; Rev. 20:4)? In that Day, the glorified Church will pillage her enemies and plunder their illicitly held possessions. When the fires of judgment have performed their work, a world formerly gone over to Satan and his seed will forever belong to the saints of the Most High. The humble will inherit the earth (Gen. 3:15; Dan. 7:18; Matt. 5:5, Luke 4:5-7; 2 Pet. 3:10-13).

The message is much the same in verses 11-16, which describe the burial of the hordes of Gog. The imagery of verse 11 is designed to communicate the immensity of the burial ground, while that of verses 12-15 staggers us with the multitude of dead bodies that will lie there. Verse 16 makes the latter idea explicit, declaring that the valley will suddenly become a city (or at least play host to a city) that men will call Hamonah (i.e., Multitude). The NT gives the interpretation: In the Judgment the resurrected saints will receive from Christ the honor of co-laboring with him in the eschatological cleansing of the world. The Church will have a role in the final casting out of all things that offend (v. 13; Matt. 13:41; 1 Cor. 6:2-3).

Verses 17-20 alert us to the symbolic character of the entire prophecy, since now we learn that the corpses of Gog are not actually buried in the valley, but instead become a sacrificial meal prepared by the LORD on the mountains of Israel for every sort of bird of the air and beast of the field. Here again the theme is the Last Judgment. We are assured of this by its NT counterpart, Revelation 19:17-21. Drawing liberally from Ezekiel’s words, the Spirit there associates “the Great Supper of God” with the Second Coming of Christ as Judge of all (Rev. 19:11-16). Passages from the DNT decode the symbolism of both prophecies: At the Parousia, Christ, the holy angels, and (perhaps) the saints themselves will fall upon the wicked and cast them into Gehenna, where the latter will be eternally devoured by the fires of divine judgment (Matt. 13:39-43; Rom. 2:5-10; 2 Thess. 1:3ff, 2:8; Jas. 5:3; Rev. 19:20, 20:14-15). Thus shall they become a kind of sacrifice, not to atone for sin, but to glorify the holiness, righteousness, justice, wrath, and power of the divine Judge of sin (Rom. 9:19-24; Rev. 15:1-8, 16:4-6).

A Final Promise of Restoration (39:21-29)

This section brings the prophecy to a close, paving the way for Ezekiel’s description of life in the everlasting World to Come (40-48). Appropriately enough, it gives us yet another promise of Israel’s eschatological restoration (vv. 25-29).

In verses 21-24 God casts a backward glance at his supreme purpose in the Judgment previously described: “That they may know.” He desires all to know his glory (v. 21). He desires Israel to know his covenant faithfulness (v. 22). And he desires the Gentiles to know that whenever they (briefly) triumphed over his people and nation, it was not because he was unable or unwilling to save them, but because they had sinned, with the result that for a little season he was forced to hide his face from them in judgment (vv. 23-24; Is. 54:8).

Mindful of this purpose, and eager to instill hope in his suffering people, God therefore concludes the prophecy with yet another promise of eschatological redemption (vv. 25–29). The blessings are familiar. He will restore the fortunes of Jacob and have mercy on the house of Israel (v. 25). They will forget their former disgrace and live securely in their own land (v. 26). Their holy and blessed life will bring honor to God’s name (v. 27). They will learn to see his sovereign hand, both in their previous exile and in their return (v. 28). And when in fact they have returned, they will rest in this glorious confidence: Never again shall God hide his face from them in judgment, for he will have poured out his life-transforming Spirit upon all the house of Israel (v. 29; Heb. 8:1–13).

How shall we interpret this final promise? That it appears to be speaking exclusively of ethnic Israel can scarcely be denied. However, the NT assures us that such is not the case. For since the prophet is clearly foreseeing the redemptive work of God in the last days, the promise is—and is yet to be—fulfilled in Christ, under the New Covenant, in the twofold Kingdom that he has introduced. Here again, however, his words are veiled: cast in ideas and images designed to give hope to God’s captive OT saints.

We conclude, then, that here Ezekiel is actually speaking of eschatological Israel, of God’s elect in all nations, whether Jew or Gentile (Gal. 6:16). Having sinned in Adam—and also by their own evil choices—God has exiled them in the Domain of Darkness, where they have suffered grievously at the hands of their many enemies. But because of his everlasting love for them, he will soon take action. He will set his glory—the Person and Work of his Son—among them, draw them to him, justify them, fill them with his Spirit, and plant them securely—with neither shame nor disgrace—in their heavenly homeland above (Heb. 12:18-24).

And yes, at the end of the age the confederate world system will mount a fierce attack against the holy nation, for God has decreed that they shall follow in the footsteps of their Redeemer (John 15:20; Rev. 11:7–10). But after they have suffered a little while, and after they have been sanctified through their suffering, God will yet again set his glory among the nations, this time at the return of the High King of Heaven and Earth, who will swiftly destroy and dispose of all his enemies, and then establish his people once and for all in their ultimate homeland: the new heavens and the new earth (1 Peter 1:3–9; 2 Peter 3:13).

On that day, all men and all nations will come to know the LORD: the sovereignty, righteousness, justice, power, wrath, love, mercy, grace, goodness, and faithfulness of the one true living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Notes:

1. This essay is extracted from my book on eschatology, entitled, The Great End Time Debate: Issues, Options, and Amillennial Answers (Redemption Press).

This essay is a chapter taken from my book, The Great End-Time Debate: Issues, Options, and Amillennial Answers (Redemption Press, 2021).1 Here is a key to some of the abbreviations you will encounter as your read:

GETD = Great End Time Debate
DNT = Didactic New Testament (i.e., the teaching portions of the gospels, the book of Acts, and the epistles)
OTKP = OT Kingdom Prophecy (OT prophecies of a coming Kingdom of God)
NCH = New Covenant Hermeneutic (the NT method for interpreting the OT in general, and OTKP in particular)
PP = Partial Preterism
FP = Full Preterism.

Introduction

In recent years a small but influential group of theologians in the Reformed wing of evangelicalism have defended a view of eschatology called preterism. The name is derived from the Latin praeter, meaning past. It fits well, since interpreters of this persuasion argue that events traditionally associated with the Consummation at the end of the present evil age have already occurred. They believe that some or all of the eschatological predictions found in the Gospels, the Epistles, and the Revelation were actually fulfilled in “the last days” between 33-70 AD, and especially in the Jewish War, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of Titus (66-70 AD).

Most historians agree that preterist eschatologies first appeared in the 17th century writings of Jesuit priest Luis de Alcazar, Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius, and English Bible scholars Henry Hammond and John Lightfoot. Later on, the English Congregational pastor J. S. Russell became the father of “full preterism,” while the American professor Moses Stuart defended a milder version called “partial preterism.” In this essay I will offer a brief exposition and critique of these two schools of eschatological thought.

I. Exposition of Partial Preterism
(To view a time line for PP please click here)

Partial preterists (PPs) agree with their Reformed forefathers in teaching that the Kingdom of God enters the world in two stages: the Era of Gospel Proclamation followed by the World to Come. They also agree that we must interpret Old Testament Kingdom prophecies (OTKP’s) figuratively and spiritually, as pointing to New Covenant institutions and blessings. However, on a number of other crucial points they differ with their Protestant predecessors.

For example, the time-line indicates that partial preterists do not identify “the last days” as the eternal Era of Fulfillment introduced by the New Covenant, but rather as the closing years of the Mosaic dispensation: that brief season of time between Pentecost (ca 33 AD) and the events of 70 AD. Also, they do not identify “the greatest tribulation” as amillennarians do (i.e., as the Last Battle between the Church and the World, fomented by the rise of the Antichrist), but as the Battle of Jerusalem, which took place in AD 67-70.

As for the Parousia, Christians have traditionally identified it with the one supernatural Coming of the Lord at the end of the present evil age. But according to PP, there are two Comings, or two phases of the one Coming. The first—sometimes referred to as “the judgment-coming”—occurred in 70 AD, when Titus destroyed Jerusalem. This judgment marked “the end of the age”: that is, the end of the Mosaic dispensation. It was not a supernatural judgment, but a providential judgment. The second (phase of the) Parousia is supernatural. It includes the bodily return of the Lord in glory, the resurrection of the dead, and the last judgment. This Coming marks the end of the Era of Gospel Proclamation. According to partial preterists, in Matthew 24:27-31 Jesus used OT apocalyptic language to symbolize his providential judgment-coming, whereas in Matthew 25:31ff he straightforwardly spoke about the events of his supernatural coming.

Partial preterists bring their new hermeneutic to the Revelation, which, based on their distinctive interpretation of the book’s contents, they insist was written around AD 60, prior to the fall of Jerusalem. Accordingly, all partial preterists agree that chapters 1-19 mystically picture the events of “the last days” (i.e., 33-70 AD), and especially those of “The Great Tribulation” of 66-70 AD, when the Church endured great hardship at the hands of Israel and Rome.

Regarding chapter 20, some PPs identify the Millennium with “the last days” (i.e., 33-70 AD), throughout which Satan was bound so that the Church could preach the Gospel to Israel and the nations. Others advance a futuristic and postmillennial interpretation, arguing that at some point in the Era of Gospel Proclamation (future even to us) God will grant his people a season of extraordinary evangelistic success, with the result that ethnic Israel will finally turn to Christ and the world will become largely Christian. Some in this latter camp—called theonomists or Christian Reconstructionists—also argue that during the millennium to come global society will become largely theocratic: that is, that the nations will be governed by the principles and statutes of the Mosaic Law.

With notable differences among them, Greg Bahnsen, David Chilton, Ken Gentry, Gary de Mar, Hank Hanegraaff, Peter Leithart, Keith Mathison, Rousas Rushdoony, Martin Selbrede, and R.C. Sproul all embrace a partial preterist understanding of biblical eschatology.

II. Exposition of Full Preterism
(To view a time line of Full Preterism, please click here)

Full Preterism (FP) is the natural result of a consistent application of the preterist hermeneutic discussed above. If our Lord used mystical, apocalyptic language in the Olivet Discourse to describe an invisible Parousia that occurred in 70 AD, who is to say that he and his apostles did not use the same kind of language to describe all of the other events biblically associated with the Parousia: the Resurrection, the Last Judgment, and the introduction of the World to Come? Who is to say that these too were not accomplished in 70 AD?

This is the position of FP’s. In 70 AD Christ came again: not bodily, but spiritually. At that time the dead were raised and judged: not visibly and bodily, but spiritually. The souls of the wicked were raised from Hades, given a new spiritual body of some kind, and cast into a Lake of Fire. Likewise, the souls of the righteous were “raised” from their previous state, given a new spiritual body of some kind, and welcomed into a spiritual World to Come.

Obviously this view raises a question: What happens to the people who are born after 70 AD? Some FP’s reply that the Last Judgment is now ongoing, and that it takes place when a person dies (Heb. 9:27). Others reply that when a person is converted and becomes a new creature in Christ, he immediately enters the spiritual World to Come, but will do so in greater fullness at the moment of his death. Thus, for FPs, the Parousia, the Resurrection, the Last Judgment, and the World to Come are not bodily and physical, but spiritual only. As for the future of the present physical universe, FPs allege that the Bible is silent on this subject.

Needless to say, FP is a dramatic break with historic Christian orthodoxy—a break that men like John Bray, (the late) David Chilton, Max and Tim King, John Noe, Don Preston, and Edward Stevens have openly made. Accordingly, they do not hesitate to remind us that the historic creeds of the Church are not infallible, and that a majority theologians can be, have been, and (in this case) presently are, wrong. Nevertheless, FP has not gained much traction among evangelical Christians. Indeed, many regard it as eschatological heresy.

III. Critique of Preterism

We have seen that Preterism emphasizes the past fulfillment of biblical prophecies surrounding the Consummation. Partial Preterism (PP) says that many of these prophecies were fulfilled between AD 30-70. Full Preterism (FP) says that all of them were. In our eschatological journey I have addressed a number of preterist claims; however, because preterist views have lately gained considerable traction in Reformed circles, we must take a closer look. We’ll begin by going to the heart of the matter: the preterist hermeneutic, the distinctively preterist method for interpreting the NT prophetic scriptures. After that, we’ll examine PP (the most popular of the two views), and then comment briefly on FP (the most troubling).

A. The Preterist Hermeneutic

Remarkably enough, it appears that the entire edifice of preterist eschatology is largely built on a small and exceedingly shaky foundation: the preterist interpretation of Matthew 24:34. We recall that the Lord said, “I tell you the truth: This generation will by no means pass away till all these things have taken place.” Preterists claim that here Christ was referring strictly to the generation of his own contemporaries, the generation that would experience the events of AD 70. But having drawn that conclusion, they now have a problem. That’s because the Lord’s description of his Parousia, found in Matthew 24:29-31, looks highly supernatural, eschatological, and cosmological. But if, as preterists claim, this event really occurred in 70 AD, then obviously we cannot take his words literally (as, indeed, most Christians do). Rather, in order to preserve their truthfulness, we shall have to interpret them typologically and figuratively. We shall have to say that here Jesus was doing as the OT prophets did in OTKP: veiling the truth in typological and figurative language, and so actually speaking of his providential judgment of Jerusalem at the hands of Titus.

Alas, the problem does not end here. For if the Lord used figurative language on this occasion, we are compelled to ask: Might he also have done so a little while later, when he spoke of the Judgment (Matt. 25:31-46)? Might he have done so when he previously spoke of the last things (e.g., Matt. 13:37-40; 22:23-33; Mark 8:38; Luke 9:27-36; John 5:21-29)? Indeed, did he predict a supernatural Parousia on any occasion? And what of his apostles? In making their predictions, were they simply following their Master by using apocalyptic language to describe the destruction of Jerusalem? And what of the Revelation? Did the Spirit really use these stunningly cosmological symbols simply to speak of the vicissitudes of “the last days” (i.e., AD 30-70)? In short, where in the NT does all the typological language end, and where does the straightforward teaching begin? Where are the words by which alone we can know God’s true future, and so decipher any veiled revelations used to describe it?

Happily, we have already received the answer: God has told us to listen to his Son, the appointed Teacher of the human race (Matt. 17:5). When he came, he revealed all facets of the Eternal Covenant. In particular, he (and his apostles) gave us many simple prophecies—straightforward, easily understood predictions—concerning the course and consummation of Salvation History. Having done so, and having seen to their preservation in the DNT, he has given us the keys: the revealed eschatological truths by which alone we can know the future and also decode the mystical meaning of the OT, OTKP, and the Revelation. Contrary to the claims of the preterists, Jesus Christ did not come to veil God’s truth, but to unveil it once and for all (Matt. 13:52).

Here, then, is the great faux pas of our preterist brothers. Just as premillennarians err by interpreting OTKP literally, so preterists err by interpreting simple NT prophecies figuratively and typologically. Bound by their narrow interpretation of Matthew 24:34, they feel constrained to embrace an entirely new hermeneutic for the interpretation of NT eschatological texts. Accordingly, they have fallen away from some or all of the tenets of traditional Christian eschatology.

Let us therefore take a moment to address the two main preterist stumbling blocks.

Concerning the Olivet Discourse, we saw earlier that it was the Lord’s extended reply to his disciples’ twofold question, a question that concerned both the destruction of Jerusalem and his supernatural Coming at the end of the age. Accordingly, the reply itself was two-fold, blending the local with the global, the historical with the eschatological, and the providential with the supernatural. We need only read the text itself to see that in all these arenas the Lord was giving simple prophecies of events future to all his disciples.

This includes Matthew 24:29-31, Christ’s prediction of his (supernatural) Parousia. Contrary to the claims of our preterist brothers, it does not read like Isaiah 13, Isaiah 24, or Ezekiel 32:7-8—OTKPs that clearly employ much figurative language. Rather, it reads like a straightforward prediction of the Coming of the Son of Man in glory. This is evident from the straightforward prediction itself, the straightforward predictions leading up to it (Matt. 24:21-27), and the straightforward predictions flowing down from it (Matt. 24:32-51; 25:31-46). And it is especially evident from the many other NT predictions that so closely resemble this one (Matt. 13:37-43; 1 Thess. 4:13-5:3; 2 Thess. 1:3-12; 2:1-12; 2 Peter 3:1-13). Clearly, this is the mother of all NT prophecies of the Parousia. If, as the preterists claim, it is not giving us a true picture of the Parousia and the Consummation, then we are completely at sea in trying to form a mental picture of the Blessed Hope of the Church.

But what of Matthew 24:34? We saw earlier that the Lord’s use of the phrase “this generation” was not monolithic, as the preterists claim. Rather, it too was controlled by the disciples’ twofold question, a question that concerned both the Lord’s providential coming to Jerusalem in AD 70, but also his supernatural coming to the world at the end of the age. Therefore, we paraphrased his words as follows: “I tell you the solemn truth: This one generation—this one fallen but beloved and eminently redeemable race of human beings, comprised of saints and sinners living here and now in Israel, but also of saints and sinners living all over the world right up to the end of the present evil age—will not pass away until all of these things have taken place.” This interpretation re-admits the supernatural, the eschatological, and the cosmological into the Olivet Discourse. In so doing, it rescues the Church from the preterist error, and restores to her the eschatology of the classic Reformation.2

Summing up, we have seen that preterist eschatology—and the confusion it brings in its train—is based on a major hermeneutical error. Having misinterpreted Matthew 24:34, preterists have forced an alien hermeneutic upon some or all of the NT texts dealing with the Consummation. Having misunderstood the mission of the Teacher—which was to unveil all of God’s truth—they have veiled it again by imposing typological and figurative interpretations upon a precious NT body of simple eschatological prophecies: prophecies that are meant to supply the scriptural foundation for, and the keys to, all biblical eschatology. This makes perfect sense. Somewhere, sometime, someone in the Bible is going to have to speak plainly about the Eternal Covenant, the Kingdom of God, and the course of Salvation History, so that God’s people will be able to decode all the typological texts dealing with those themes. In the DNT Christ and the apostles have done this very thing (Matt. 13:10-12, 51-52; John 16:12-14, 25; 1 Cor. 2:6-16; Eph. 1:8-10). Alas, our preterist brethren fail to see it.

B. Critique of Partial Preterism 

Keeping these thoughts in mind, let us now take a critical look at PP by examining its position on the four underlying issues of the GETD.

View of the Kingdom

In agreement with Amillennialism, PP affirms that the Kingdom of God is the direct spiritual reign of God the Father, through the Son, and by the Holy Spirit; that it is entered through faith in the Person and Work of Christ; and that it is the promise of the Eternal Covenant. Also, the two schools agree that the Kingdom enters the world in two stages: a spiritual Kingdom of the Son, followed by a spiritual and physical Kingdom of the Father. However, as we shall see, PP holds heterodox views on certain key events proper to the Kingdom of the Son.

View of OTKP

Like amillennarians, PPs use the NCH to interpret OTKP. Rightly, they have learned to view Christ, the New Covenant, the Church, and the two-staged Kingdom of God as the true spheres of fulfillment for all OTKP. However, to the extent that they misunderstand NT teaching on the course of the Era of Proclamation, to that same extent they will misinterpret OTKPs dealing with its key events. For example, if a partial preterist believes that NT predictions of the Man of Lawlessness were fulfilled by the emperor Nero, then that conviction will shape his interpretation of OT prophecies dealing with the Antichrist and the Last Battle (e.g., Dan. 7:1-28; 9:26-27; 11:36-12:13).

View of the Consummation

Before discussing the PP view of the Revelation and the Millennium, we must first examine its understanding of the Consummation.

Like Amillennialism (and unlike FP), PP affirms the traditional elements of the Consummation: a single supernatural coming of the glorified Christ, a single resurrection, a single judgment, and a single advent of the glorious World to Come. However, on the following five points, PP departs from traditional orthodoxy.

First, most PPs assert that “the last days” are the years during which the Mosaic Covenant remained in effect (ca AD 33-70). However, no NT text teaches this. Though the early church would need time to realize it, the Mosaic Covenant ended on a single day: the Day of Pentecost, when, for the first time, through the mystery of preaching (Rom. 10:14), Christians entered the New Covenant that Christ sealed with his blood, thereby abrogating the Old (Mark 11:13-14; Matt. 27:51; John 19:30; Acts 2). As for “the last days”, some NT texts use this expression to speak of “the last of the last days”: the (difficult) days prior to the Consummation (2 Tim. 3:1; 2 Peter 3:3). However, as a rule the Bible understands “the last days” as the season of Salvation History in which the Eternal Covenant and the Kingdom of God have been manifested in the world. They began with Christ’s incarnation, and will extend into eternity future (Is. 2:2; Hos. 3:5; Mic. 4:1; Acts 2:17; Heb. 1:2).

Secondly, most PPs assert that the early Church fully evangelized the world prior to AD 70, thus fulfilling Matthew 24:14. Now it is true that in the apostolic era the Gospel spread like wildfire, thoroughly penetrating the Roman “world” (Acts 19:20; Rom. 15:18-19; Col. 1:6; 1 Thess. 1:8-9). But hyperbole notwithstanding (Col. 1:23), this was only a prelude to, and a picture of, the evangelization of the whole earth, of which the Lord Jesus spoke in the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24:14; cf. Rom. 15:18-29). Many NT texts depict the Great Commission as open-ended and incomplete. The Lord tarries, not desiring that any should perish (2 Peter 3:8-9). The Two Witnesses of Revelation 11:7 (i.e., the witnessing Church) have not yet finished giving their testimony. Fittingly, even after 2,000 years of Gospel proclamation, the Church still hears the Great Commission as a command to finish the job of world evangelization in the power of Christ, who promises to be with her always, for that purpose, even till the end of the age (Matt. 28:18-20).

Thirdly, most PPs teach that Nero was the Man of Lawlessness (i.e., the Antichrist). However, while Nero was indeed animated by the spirit of the Antichrist (1 John 4:3), he was not the eschatological Antichrist himself, as any objective reading of 2 Thessalonians 2 will make clear. The coming of the Antichrist—with his miraculous powers, unprecedented claims to deity, and global following—still lies ahead, and is arguably the single most important sign of the nearness of the end (2 Thess. 2; Rev. 13:3).

Fourthly, PPs identify “the greatest tribulation” of Matthew 24:21-22 with the vicissitudes of Titus’ invasion in 67-70 AD. We have seen, however, that while the Lord did indeed have those vicissitudes in mind, and while they were indeed dire, he primarily had in view something far worse: a tribulation the likes of which the world has never seen before, and never will again. Set to occur at the end of present evil age, it will be triggered by the coming of the eschatological Abomination that Causes Desolation (i.e., the Antichrist), cut short for the sake of the elect, and end at the visible appearing of the Son of God in glory in the skies above the earth (Matt. 24:15-31; Rev. 1:7). It is contemporaneous with, and largely constituted by, the Last Battle between the Church and the world, which, notably, is repeatedly foreseen in the Revelation (Rev. 11:7-10; 13:6-10; 16:12-16; 19:19; 20:7-10).

Finally, while it is indeed true that PPs affirm a supernatural Coming of Christ at the end of the present evil age, their teaching on this point is confused. The crux of the problem is the relation between Matthew 24:29-31 and Matthew 25:31-46. Amillennarians teach that the former is a simple prophecy of Christ’s supernatural Parousia, and the latter a simple prophecy of the (final) Judgment immediately following. PPs disagree. Constrained by their interpretation of Matthew 24:34, they assert that the former is a veiled prophecy of Christ’s “judgment-coming” to Jerusalem, whereas the latter is a simple prophecy of his supernatural judgment of the world.

But this view strains all credulity. The Olivet Discourse (Matt 24-25) is a seamless teaching in which Christ gives his disciples a series of simple prophecies covering historical events that will occur between the days of his flesh and the end of the age. These two portions of the very same discourse—with their shared references to the Coming of the Son of Man, his glory, his angels, and his judgment—fit together hand in glove. Both are clearly describing the one supernatural Parousia of Christ and the one cosmological Consummation it will bring.

The preterist exegesis of the Olivet Discourse wreaks havoc on the interpretation of other NT texts dealing with the Consummation. For again, if Christ himself used veiled language to describe his providential coming, but straightforward language to describe his supernatural coming, then which of the two comings were the apostles referring to when they themselves spoke of the last things?

Inconsistencies and debates among PPs show that this is a very real problem. For example, we have seen that Matthew 24:29-31 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:3 are so similar that most Christians regard them as parallel texts. Yet all PPs say that the former gives us the Lord’s providential coming, while some say that the latter gives us his supernatural Coming. FPs avoid this inconsistency by saying that both texts give us the coming of AD 70, with the result that amillennarians say they are partially mistaken instead of greatly mistaken.

Again, nearly all PPs say that in 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 the apostle was predicting the death (by suicide) of the emperor Nero, whom the Lord Jesus “providentially” slew with the breath of his mouth and brought to an end by the appearance of his Coming! Setting aside the historical and exegetical implausibility of this interpretation, how then can some PPs (e.g., Ken Gentry) affirm that in 2 Thessalonians 1:3-12 Paul was referring the Christ’s supernatural Parousia, when it is obvious that in both prophecies he was speaking of one and the same event?

Or again, how can one PP (e.g., Ken Gentry) say that in 2 Peter 3 the apostle was describing cosmic destruction and renewal, while another (e.g., Peter Leithart) says that he was actually predicting the events of AD 70? Amillennarians reply, “Because Leithart is more consistent in his application of the preterist hermeneutic, and so has slidden further down the slippery slope into error.”

The truth of the matter is as simple as it is important: Whether we have in mind their statements in the book of Acts, the epistles, or the Revelation, Christ’s apostles show no interest whatsoever in the destruction of Jerusalem (unless, perhaps, it is found in 1 Thessalonians 2:16). This is true whether it lay ahead of them (as in the case of Paul’s early writings) or behind them (as in the case of all of John’s). Their only eschatological concern is the Parousia: the one supernatural Coming of Christ, set to occur at the end of the present evil age (1 Thess. 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thess. 2:1; James 5:7; 2 Peter 3:12; 1 John 3:2). Yes, in the Olivet Discourse we do find the Lord referring to the destruction of Jerusalem, for his disciples had specifically inquired about this, and it was necessary for him to prepare them. But in the rest of the DNT, which is directed almost entirely to Gentile Christians, or to Jewish believers dispersed throughout the Roman empire, interest in the events of AD 70 completely falls away, seeing that the one true Blessed Hope of the universal Church was (and is) the visible Coming of Christ in power and glory at the end of the present evil age. This is the living heart of all apostolic eschatology, as indeed every major NT eschatological text makes clear. 

View of the Revelation and the Millennium

Having critiqued preterist teaching on the Consummation, we are now in a position to consider its views on the Revelation and the Millennium. I will do so in two steps.

      1. View of Revelation 1-19

By and large, PPs assert that Revelation 1-19 was fulfilled prior to, during, or very shortly after AD 70. For preterists, the theme of these chapters is not a supernatural consummation to be accomplished at the end of a lengthy Era of Proclamation, but rather the events of “the last days,” understood as the years following Pentecost and culminating in a “judgment-coming” of Christ at the Battle of Jerusalem (ca 33-70 AD). Of necessity, this approach requires preterists to correlate the symbols of the Revelation with concrete historical persons and events of the 1st century. Those who have surveyed preterist writing on this subject realize that the attempt is as maddening as it is vain.

Here is a very general survey of the PP view. Chapters 1-3 give us Christ’s message to the seven Asian churches—messages that were designed to equip the 1st century Church to endure tribulation until “the end” (i.e., AD 70). Chapters 4-5 give us visions of God and Christ, who, by their good providence, will safeguard the redeemed as they bring “the end” to pass. The visions of the six seals (Rev. 6), the seven trumpets (Rev. 8-11), and the seven bowls (Rev. 15-16) all depict various events and judgments up to and including “the end” itself. Revelation 7:1-8 depicts the spiritual sealing of the universal Church (or of the faithful Jewish remnant), so that the saints might safely pass through the tribulation of “the last days”. Revelation 7:9-13 depicts them as having done so and now enjoying the blessings of Heaven above. Chapters 12-14 girded the early Church for persecution at the hands of two of the Dragon’s helpers: the Beast (i.e., Nero/Rome), and the False Prophet (i.e., either the Roman governor of Jerusalem, or the cabal of apostate Jewish clerics who fell in with Rome). Chapters 17-19 depict the fall of the Dragon’s third helper, the Harlot (i.e., apostate Jerusalem), who wickedly consorts with the Beast (i.e., Nero/Rome). According to most PPs, none of these chapters contain a description of Christ’s supernatural Parousia, only of the spiritual and providential victories he will grant to his faithful 1st century Church.

In the course of our journey I have defended a standard amillennial interpretation of the Revelation. With that in mind, I offer the following short critique of the PP view on chapters 1-19.

First, we have seen that a large majority of NT scholars, citing both internal and external evidence, have concluded that the Revelation was written around 95 AD, and not around 60 AD, as PPs assert. If so, the preterist interpretation is impossible. The Spirit of God would not inspire a prophecy dealing strictly with events already past, or addressing believers who, for the most part, were already asleep in the Lord.3, 4

Secondly, PP misunderstands both the audience and purpose of the Revelation. The audience is the Universal Church, and the purpose is to equip her for her centuries-long journey through the howling wilderness of this present evil age (Rev. 12). It does so by keeping before her eyes (and not behind her back) the rigors of the Great Tribulation through which she must pass, the nature and tactics of the enemies she will face, the vicissitudes of the Last Battle she is destined to endure, and the eternal rescue and restoration she will experience at the Coming of her mighty King. Preterism turns the Revelation into an historical curiosity, when in fact it is an urgently needed prophecy, valuable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, so that the people of God may stand complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work in these last days (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Thirdly, PP opens the door to exegetical chaos. It does so by forcing the interpreter to look outside of Scripture for the meaning of the symbols it employs. To what 1st century persons, places, things, and events does the Revelation refer when it speaks of the Seal, Trumpet, and Bowl judgments; of the 144,000 sealed Israelites, or the Two Witnesses; of the Beasts from the Sea and the Earth; of the Mark of the Beast; of the Harlot and Great Babylon; of the Battle of Armageddon; or of the stupendous judgments described at the end of each of the six visionary cycles comprising Revelation 6-20? Combing the works of Jewish and pagan historians, PPs bring back one speculative answer after another. But who is say which answer is right? By forcing us to look outside of Scripture, the preterist hermeneutic opens the door to exegetical chaos, whereas the idealist hermeneutic—which locates the meaning of all the symbols in the OT and the DNT—keeps us on solid exegetical ground.

Finally, PP obscures—indeed, trivializes—the majestic symbolism of the Revelation, which clearly does not point to the local and the historical, but instead to the global, the cosmological, and the eschatological. We have seen, for example, that the seal, trumpet, and bowl judgments do not fall (exclusively) on Jerusalem or Rome, but rather upon the entire world-system; that the Beast from the sea is not Nero, but the governmental face of the anti-Christian world-system; that the False Prophet is not an obscure Roman functionary or a cabal of apostate Jewish clerics, but the religious face of the anti-Christian world-system; that the Harlot is not earthly Jerusalem, but the economic and cultural face of the world-system; that Babylon the Great is not Rome or Jerusalem, but the City of Man of all time, the fallen world-system as a whole; etc. Yes, the preterist approach may give us some valid historical applications of these symbols, but it by no means exhausts them. Being universal in scope, they therefore speak with fresh power to every generation of believers.

      2. View of Revelation 20-22                 

Concerning Revelation 20-22, PPs disagree among themselves. Some identify the Millennium with the entire Era of Proclamation. On this view, the binding of Satan is an ongoing work of the Spirit made possible by the cross of Christ. Henceforth, the Deceiver of men and nations cannot prevent the ingathering of God’s elect, nor can he foment the Last Battle until the God-appointed time. The first resurrection is spiritual rather than physical, and refers either to the new birth or the onset of the Intermediate State. Revelation 20:7-10 gives us the book’s one and only prediction of the Last Battle between the Church and the world. However, the Man of Lawlessness will not spearhead it, since he has already appeared in the person of Emperor Nero. Other passages that seem to predict a future Last Battle were actually fulfilled during the Great Tribulation of AD 66-70, when the Church was persecuted by Israel and Rome. Therefore, Revelation 20:7-15 gives us the book’s one and only description of the supernatural Coming of Christ, the Resurrection, and the Judgment, while chapters 21-22 give us the advent of the World to Come. We have seen, however, that chapters 1-19 actually give us numerous visions of the Consummation (6:12-17; 11:15-19; 14:14-20; 16:17-21; 19:11-21), and that the advent of the Man of Lawlessness is actually the preeminent sign of the imminence of the Lord’s supernatural return (2 Thess. 2; Rev. 13:8).

Other interpreters—like David Chilton, Ken Gentry, Keith Mathison, and Doug Wilson—defend a postmillennial interpretation of Revelation 20. For such as these, the Millennium is a Golden Era still future to us. The binding of Satan has yet to occur, but certainly will, probably when ethnic Israel is graciously turned back to the Lord (Rom. 11:15). This will bring about the first resurrection and the millennial reign of the saints, these being understood as fresh bursts of Gospel vitality that will fill the earth, not only with multitudes of devoted Christians, but also with widespread Kingdom righteousness, peace, and joy. Alas, the Golden Era will be (dreadfully) marred by the release of Satan and a resultant global rebellion against Christ and his faithful remnant. But the Lord will reverse the reversal at his swift return, and will raise the dead, judge the world in righteousness, and bring in the new heavens and the new earth. For a critique of this view, please see my previous evaluation of Postmillennialism.4

C. Critique of Full Preterism

We have seen that Full Preterism (FP) is the natural result of a consistent application of the preterist hermeneutic. If our Lord used apocalyptic and cosmological language in his Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24:29-31) to describe what was in fact a providential and spiritual coming in AD 70, then who is to say that he and his apostles did not use the same kind of language in all their eschatological predictions? Who is to say that in all their utterances about the Consummation they did not have the events of AD 67-70 in mind? Alas, in a radical departure from PP and Christian orthodoxy, FPs have taken this very position. Focusing on FP distinctives, I will briefly review and critique their views here.

View of the Kingdom

FPs teach that the Kingdom of God is a direct spiritual reign of the triune God over his New Covenant people; and that it enters history in two stages: the last days of the Mosaic Covenant (AD 33-70), followed by eternal heavenly and earthly worlds to come, inaugurated at the time of Christ’s Parousia in AD 70. They also teach that the reign of God is always and only spiritual; that it will never come upon the physical bodies of the saints or the natural world in which they were created to live.

We have seen, however, that the NT supplies a dramatically different picture of the Kingdom. Yes, the one Kingdom does indeed enter history in two stages. But the first—the Kingdom of the Son—is co-extensive with the entire Era of Gospel Proclamation. And the second—the Kingdom of the Father—is not only spiritual, but also physical and eternal, and is the sudden, supernatural creation of the High King of Heaven at his visible return in power and glory. Thus, at bottom, there is no fellowship between the amillennial and full preterist views of the Kingdom of God.

View of OTKP

FPs rightly interpret OTKP typologically and figuratively, in terms of the New Covenant. But again, their great misstep is to impose a bastardized version of the NCH on all the simple eschatological predictions of the DNT. But in doing so they actually take away the master key to all biblical eschatology, making it impossible for us to discern the true shape of Salvation History, and therefore the true sense of the Old Testament prophetic texts dealing with the last days and the Consummation.

View of the Revelation and the Millennium

FPs teach that this stunningly eschatological and cosmological book was entirely fulfilled in historical and spiritual events that occurred around AD 70, though certain spiritual aftermaths remain with us to this day. Concerning Revelation 20, opinions differ: Some says it temporal sphere of fulfillment is held to be “the last days” (AD 33-70), others the Battle of Masada (AD 70 to 73), and others the Bar Kochba rebellion (AD 132). In any case, all FPs agree that Revelation 20 does not take us to a genuinely cosmological judgment and “consummation of all things” (1 Peter 4:7).

We have seen, however, that the Revelation actually scans the entire centuries-long journey of the pilgrim Church; and that its manifold symbols, which the DNT alone can illumine, confront us afresh with every element of the classic NT eschatology: the various judgments and deliverances of God administered throughout Salvation History, the Church’s serial encounters with the Dragon and his helpers, her constant spiritual nourishment at the hand of her heavenly King, the hope of spiritual perfection during the Intermediate State, the Last Battle, the Parousia, the bodily Resurrection of the Dead, the Transformation of the Living Saints, the Judgment at the Great White Throne of Christ, the Lake of Fire, and the New Heavens and the New Earth. Again, the Revelation is actually the Grand Finale of all Scripture, and is therefore one of the greatest prophetic treasures of the pilgrim Church. She must never let FP rob her of it.

View of the Consummation 

Just here the preterist error is at its worst, since FPs, while disagreeing among themselves on fine points, stand united in expressly denying the traditional elements of the biblical Consummation. Having already discussed NT teaching on these points, I will simply describe the basic FP view here, and then let you, the good Berean, decide for yourself how they compare.

There is but one Parousia of Christ, and it is not a future bodily return of the Lord in glory. Rather, it is a past “judgment-coming” that occurred in AD 70, a coming that (somehow) brought the suffering first-century Church into the fullness of her spiritual inheritance. Therefore, as never before, Christ has now fully come to his people, and will not come again, bodily, to this earth.

The Resurrection is not a future event in which Christ, at his bodily appearing, will join the spirits of the dead with their physical remains, thereby creating eternal physical bodies. Rather, it is a past spiritual event in which he raised the souls of the biologically dead out of Sheol/Hades and gave them new “spiritual bodies” suited for Heaven or Gehenna. Now that the one general Resurrection has occurred, and also the transformation of the living saints (1 Cor. 15, 1 Thess. 4), the souls of all who die physically are spiritually “raised” at death and go directly to Heaven or Gehenna.

Again, the Judgment is not a future event in which all mankind will appear bodily before the judgment seat of Christ, there to receive eternal reward or retribution. Rather, it too occurred in AD 70, when Christ opened Heaven, created Gehenna (also called the Lake of Fire), raised the souls of the dead out of Sheol/Hades, and assigned them to their eternal spiritual habitation. Also, at his return in AD 70 the Lord “destroyed” the earth and its works (see 2 Peter 3:10), but only in this sense: Having fully entered his Church, he has now inaugurated a whole new world order, such that, through the Gospel preaching of the Church, he will ever-increasingly destroy the powers of evil and bend the wayward nations to his will.

Thus, concerning the World to Come, it has in fact already come. Why? Because Christ has already come (in AD 70), the Resurrection has already occurred, the Judgment has taken place, and the New Jerusalem (i.e., his Spirit-filled Church) has “descended” onto a new, spiritually transformed Earth, in which she will continually summon all men and nations to enter her blessed precincts through faith in Christ and the Gospel (Rev. 21:2, 22-27; 22:22:1-2; 17).

You may ask: “But what of the present physical world in which we live, ‘the whole creation that groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now’” (Rom. 8:22)? What is her future? Alas, on this subject the Scriptures are (allegedly) silent. Ours is simply to occupy: not until he comes, but until we go.

Again, having closely examined NT teaching on all these themes, I will not offer further criticisms here. Suffice it say that if Amillennialism really is the eschatology of the Bible, then FP clearly stands under the stern rebuke of Holy Scripture (Matt. 24:26-27; Acts 1:11; Rom. 8:18-25; 1 Cor. 15; 1 Tim. 1:18-20; 2 Tim. 2:18). Having read some of the writings of my FP brothers, I sense that they do indeed love the Lord, and that in developing their eschatology they are trying to be faithful to their best understanding of the NT. Nevertheless,, if we may define heresy as a persistent and harmful departure from widely accepted biblical doctrine, then the historic creeds of the Church unanimously declare that FP is eschatological heresy (1 Cor. 11:2, 19, 2 Thess. 2:15). Let every good Berean decide for himself.

IV. Conclusion

By imposing an alien, spiritualizing hermeneutic on the simple eschatological predictions given by God’s appointed Teacher and his apostles, PP badly damages our Blessed Hope, while FP destroys it altogether. Therefore I would urge all my preterist brothers to return swiftly to the traditional amillennial faith of the Church. I think it likely that we are living in the last of the last days. If so, the Bride of Christ will need all the eschatological truth, clarity, and encouragement she can get. And she will need you to help her receive them all.

Notes:

1. Available here.

2. For a more detailed discussion of Matthew 24:34, please click here.

3. For a brief discussion of the internal evidence favoring a late date for composition of the Revelation, please click here. External confirmation comes from second century scholar and bishop, Irenaeus (ca.125-202). Citing earlier sources, he wrote, “John received the Revelation almost in our own time, toward the end of the reign of Domitian” (i.e., AD 81-96).

4. In defense of an early date preterists cite verses in the Revelation stating that the events in view “must shortly come pass” (Rev. 1:1; 22:6), and that “the appointed time is near” (Rev. 1:3; 22:10). But these texts hardly prove an early date of composition or a strictly 1st century fulfillment of the prophecies. To begin with, there are two verses in chapter 22 stating that all things, including the advent of the World to Come, must shortly come to pass, and that their time is near. So unless one is a full preterist, these verses rule out a strictly 1st century fulfillment of the book. More to the point, the progressive idealist interpretation of the book richly illumines the nuanced meaning of these expressions. Since the Revelation speaks to all believers of all times, it is indeed true that many of its predictions came true in the lives of first century Christians, just as they will for believers of subsequent generations. As for the prophecies that speak of the end of the age (i.e., of the Last Battle, the Parousia, the Resurrection, the Judgment, etc.), they too will soon come to pass, for against the backdrop of eternity a thousand years in God’s sight are like yesterday when it has passed by, and like a watch in the night (Psalm 90:4; 2 Pet. 3:8).

5. For an exposition and critique of Postmillennialism, please click here.

This article is an extract from my book, The Great End Time Debate: Issues, Options and Amillennial Answers. Because a number of contemporary postmillennarians also embrace Partial Preterism, you may also wish to read my article on Preterism, available here.

Here is a key to some of the abbreviations you will encounter as you read:

GETD = Great End Time Debate
DNT = Didactic New Testament (i.e., the teaching portions of the gospels, the book of Acts, and the epistles)
OTKP = OT Kingdom Prophecy (OT prophecies of the coming Kingdom of God)
NCH = New Covenant Hermeneutic (the NT method for interpreting the OT in general, and OTKP in particular)

 

Exposition

(To view a timeline for Postmillennialism, please click here)

The word postmillennialism means after the millennium. Thus, like Amillennialism, Postmillennialism teaches that Christ will come again after the “1000 years” of Revelation 20. Nevertheless, the two schools differ, primarily because postmillennarians are highly optimistic about the progress and societal impact of the Gospel during the Era of Proclamation. The seeds of this persuasion were first planted by Augustine, who was quite confident about the redemptive power and future growth of the City of God (i.e., the Church). In Reformation times certain Dutch theologians modified his view, asserting that the thousand years symbolize a later portion of the Era of Proclamation, during which time large numbers of Jews will be converted and the world will become largely Christian.

Though hardly the majority report of the Church, Postmillennialism has had some astute defenders. Most of the American Puritans were postmillennarians. They believed that God would use the American experiment in a special way to advance his universal Kingdom. More recent postmillennarians include Charles Hodge, Benjamin Warfield, Lorraine Boettner, John Jefferson Davis, Jeff Durbin, Marcellus Kik, Keith Mathison, James White, and Doug Wilson. The disciples of Rousas Rushdoony—the founder of a theological school called Christian Reconstructionism—are also postmillennial. They include Greg Bahnsen, Ken Gentry, Gary North, Martin Selbrede, and Doug Wilson.

Very briefly, here is the postmillennarian position on the four underlying issues of the GETD.

The Kingdom of God

Postmillennarians agree with their amillennarian brothers that the Kingdom of God is a direct spiritual reign of the triune God, and that it enters history in two fundamental stages: the purely spiritual Kingdom of the Son, followed by the spiritual and physical Kingdom of the Father. But again, some postmillennarians think of the Millennium as a distinct phase of the Kingdom of Son, in which Christ suddenly binds Satan and then triumphantly extends his spiritual reign over the face of the whole earth. Thus, for these interpreters, postmillennialism is not really a species of present-millennialism, since here the Millennium is present with some, but not all, Christians who live in the Era of Proclamation.

The Interpretation of OTKP

Once again postmillennarians agree with their amillennarian brethren in interpreting OTKPs typologically and figuratively, as being fulfilled under the New Covenant and among its people, the Church. There is, however, a crucial difference: In OT texts where amillennarians find the prophets speaking of the World to Come, most postmillennarians find them speaking of the triumphs of the Era of Gospel Proclamation. More on this in a moment.

The Meaning of the Millennium

On this issue postmillennarians differ among themselves. Some identify the 1000 years of Revelation 20 with the entire Era of Proclamation, others with its final thousand years, still others with a season of indeterminate length situated towards the end of the present evil age. In the latter case, this season is held to commence with a special, latter-day binding of Satan, possibly leading to the conversion of ethnic Israel at large (the view I have pictured in the time-line above). All agree, however, that the basic trajectory of Church history, despite occasional setbacks, is one of Gospel triumph.

The Consummation

Regarding the Consummation, postmillennarians concede that Revelation 20:7-10 does indeed anticipate a final, global rebellion against Christ and his faithful people (i.e., the Last Battle). This painful interlude—so out of character with the preceding years of triumph and blessing—will quickly lead to the Parousia, the several other elements of the Consummation, and the advent of the World to Come.

We find, then, that for most postmillennarians the true locus of Christ’s victory over the powers of evil is the Era of Proclamation itself, with Christ’s Second Coming serving largely as a glorious capstone upon all that he was able previously to accomplish through the faithful preaching of his Church and the activism of Christian citizens.

Does Scripture justify this optimistic scenario? Does the course of Church History to date confirm it? In the following critique we will seek to answer these important questions.

Critique

With the help of the time line above, let us critically examine the postmillennarian understanding of Salvation History, paying special attention to the four underlying issues we have just identified and discussed.

View of the Kingdom

Amillennarians divide the Kingdom of God into two simple stages: the temporary Kingdom of the Son, followed by the perfect and eternal Kingdom of the Father (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43; Col. 1:13). But as we have seen, most postmillennarians go on to divide the Kingdom of the Son into two sub-stages: an initial stage of real, difficult, and partial Gospel progress, followed by a millennial stage of enormous Gospel progress. Postmillennarian Ken Gentry speaks for many when he says of the Millennium: “The Kingdom will grow and develop until eventually it exercises a dominant and universal gracious influence in a long era of righteousness, peace, and prosperity on the earth and in history.”

But this view of the Kingdom of the Son is not supported in Scripture. Nowhere in the DNT do we find any suggestion that it is divided into two stages, or that it includes a long, future Golden Era. Quite to the contrary, we find both Christ and the apostles repeatedly girding the loins of the saints for constant opposition and persecution, though also for a real measure of success as God gathers together his little flock through the faithful preaching of the Gospel (Matt. 24:9-14; John 10:16; Rom. 8:30; 1 Thess. 2:2; Titus 2:14; 1 Pet. 4:12; 1 John 3:13, 5:19).

On this score, the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares is paradigmatic (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43). Here the Lord clearly assumes that throughout the entire Era of Proclamation the tares will grow up alongside the wheat. Indeed, so abundant are the tares that the angels regard them as a threat to the safety of God’s crop (Matt. 13:27-28). This is the template of all NT eschatology. Believers ever live and serve in the present evil age (Gal. 1:4). They must redeem the time, for the days are evil (Eph. 5:16). They constantly struggle against the world-forces of this present darkness (Eph. 6:12). To the very end, the world-system lies in the grip of the evil one (1 John 5:19). Always and everywhere the Church is a light shining in the deepening darkness of the world-system (Matt. 5:14; John 1:5; Phil. 2:15). Her ongoing experience is one of Great Tribulation (Rev. 7:14). She is constantly making a hard pilgrimage through the wilderness of a hostile world (Rev. 12:6, 13-17). The Last Battle is simply the final and most extreme engagement of this perennial war. Where, in all of this, is there room for a Golden Era of peace, righteousness, and prosperity?

View of OTKP

Postmillennarians argue that many OTKP’s predict a global triumph of the Gospel in the Era of Proclamation (see Psalms 72, 110; Is. 2:1-4, 45:2-3, 65:17-25; Mic. 4:1-3; Zech. 9:10, etc.). But here we encounter some serious confusion. Yes, postmillennarians are correct when they assert that these prophecies are fulfilled under the New Covenant, and that we must therefore interpret them typologically and figuratively. But they err when they assert that the prophecies are largely fulfilled in the Era of Proclamation, and not at all in the World to Come.

The truth here is nuanced, and accessible only through a careful use of the DNT and the NCH. The DNT always depicts the Kingdom of the Son as a temporary season of partial Gospel success leading up to the Consummation, and the Kingdom of the Father as an eternal season of complete success following the removal of all evil at the Consummation. Under the discipline of this rubric we will understand OTKP’s prophecies well. Apart from it we will will stumble into error, false optimism, and deep disappointment.

Let us apply this principle to a text that is especially dear to the hearts of our postmillennial brothers. In Psalm 72, the writer (likely David) supplies his fellow Israelites with a coronation prayer that they can offer to God in behalf of Solomon and his royal successors. In so doing he gives the world a picture of Israel’s ideal king, and of the blessings that will attend his reign. Premillennarians say that here David is describing the fruits of a millennial era that will begin after Christ’s return. Postmillennarians say he is describing the fruits of a Golden Era that will occur before his return. Amillennarians, operating under the discipline of the DNT, say he is describing the fruits of Christ’s heavenly reign during the Era of Proclamation, at the Consummation, and throughout the eternal World to Come. They understand that the mystery of the two-staged Kingdom was hidden from the Psalmist’s eyes, with the result that the latter gives us a seamless vision of the total fruitage of the Messiah’s promised reign.

With the help of the NCH we can see exactly how the vision is fulfilled. For example, we can see that even now the heavenly King defends the cause of the poor (v. 4; Matt. 5:3; 1 Cor. 1:26–30). Even now he gives deliverance to the oppressed and needy (vv. 4, 12; Eph. 2:1–10; 1 Thess. 1:10; Titus 3:3–7). Even now, to his spiritually thirsty people, he is like showers that water the earth (v. 6; Acts 3:19; 1 Cor. 12:13; Phil. 1:19). Even now, through the faithful preaching of the Gospel, his far-flung dominion is spreading from sea to sea, and to all the ends of the earth (v. 8; Matt. 13:33; Acts 1:8; Col. 1:23).

However, this psalm also anticipates the Consummation, as well as the eternal stage of the Kingdom that will follow. At his return, the King’s enemies will lick the dust (v. 9; Luke 19:27), all the rulers of the earth will fall down before him (v. 11; Phil. 2:10), and every remaining oppressor, including death itself, will be crushed (vv. 4, 14; Rom. 16:20; 1 Cor. 15:25). Then, in the completed Kingdom that he himself has ushered in, the mountains will bring forth perfect prosperity (v. 3; Heb. 12:18–24; Rev. 21:10), the peoples will flourish like the grass of the field (v. 16; Rev. 22:2), the saints will praise his name forever (v. 17; Heb. 13:15), and all the nations of the saved will call him blessed (v. 17; Rev. 5:6–14). Long shall he live, and long shall his redeemed Bride and Family live with him in the eternal Kingdom of God (vv. 14, 15; Rev. 1:18; 21:3–4).

It is not that OTKPs cannot be understood to promise a Golden Era of Gospel prosperity; it is that the DNT requires us to interpret them otherwise. The OT does indeed promise a universal reign of Israel’s Messiah and Israel’s God. But that reign will overspread the earth in part through the preaching of the Gospel, and then in fullness at the Lord’s return. In that day the OT prophets themselves will rejoice, for the Golden Age of Israel’s ideal King will have come at last.

View of the Revelation

As a rule, postmillennarians teach that the events described in Revelation 20 follow those described in Revelation 19:11–21. But since Revelation 20:7–15 clearly speaks of the Consummation, postmillennarians conclude that Revelation 19:11–21 must be speaking of something else. According to certain preterists, it is the providential “judgment-coming” of the Lord in AD 70, when Titus destroyed Jerusalem. Loraine Boettner argues that this text is giving us “. . . a vision setting forth in figurative language the age-long struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil in the world, with its promise of complete victory.” In other words, Revelation 19 is giving us Christ winning a fair measure of Gospel success during the first stage of the Kingdom of the Son, which, in time, will lead to a special binding of Satan, which in turn will inaugurate a millennial era of extraordinary Gospel success (Rev. 20:1–3).

In that day, say the postmillennarians, the world will experience “the first resurrection.” That is, it will experience a “. . . restoration and vindication of the cause for which the martyrs died” (John Jefferson Davis) and “a rebirth of the martyr spirit” (Augustus Strong). Accordingly, vast numbers of millennial saints, now fully subject to the Spirit of Christ, will reign in victory over sin on a peaceful and prosperous earth (Rev. 20:4–6). Yes, at the close of the Millennium this global triumph will seem, for the briefest of moments, to end in defeat, as Satan is released from his prison and gathers multitudes against the faithful people of God. But at his Parousia, Christ will swiftly intervene to destroy his enemies (Rev. 20:7–10). This will lead to the Last Judgment (Rev. 20:12–15), which in turn will lead to the advent of the new heavens and the new earth (Rev. 21–22).

But again, the DNT does not support this teaching. As we have seen, Revelation 20 runs parallel to Revelation 17–19, and does not follow it chronologically.1 Revelation 19:11–21 most certainly does give us the Parousia, as do Revelation 6:12–17, 11:11–19, 14:14–20, and 20:10–15. The binding of Satan took place at the beginning of the Era of Proclamation, through Christ’s work on the cross. It is not still future, even to us who live 2,000 years into that era (Matt. 12:29; John 12:31; Col. 2:15; 1 Peter 3:22; Rev. 12:7–12)! The first resurrection is not a revival of the martyr’s cause or spirit, but rather the perfection of the spirits of the saints as they enter upon the joys of the Intermediate State (Rev. 14:13). And finally, the millennial reign of the saints does not take place on the earth, but rather in Heaven, where the spirits of the saints reign in life with Christ, even as they await the final triumph of life in Christ: the resurrection of their bodies at the Parousia of the High King (Rom. 5:17; 1 Cor. 15:1–58; Rev. 20:11–15).

View of the Consummation

Fundamentally, the postmillennial view of the Consummation is sound, since it looks for a single Consummation at the Parousia of Christ. There are, however, some weighty problems.

First, many postmillennarians anticipate a latter-day conversion of ethnic Israel prior to the Golden Era of Gospel success. But this is not the teaching of the DNT, which, by my lights, looks for Israel’s conversion near the end of the Millennium; that is, near the end of the Era of Proclamation. Here the postmillennial error is of real concern, since it robs the Church of an important sign of the imminence of the Parousia: the grafting of (many) ethnic Jews back into the vine of Christ, after which we may soon expect “life from the dead” (Rom. 11:15).

Secondly, Postmillennialism vitiates biblical teaching about the Last Battle. Yes, postmillennarians confess that a Last Battle will occur just prior to the Parousia. But by placing it on the far side of their Golden Era, they leave the Church looking first for a Golden Era (that will not come), and only then for a Last Battle (which, for postmillennarians, will come all too soon). Thus, Postmillennialism cuts the nerve of NT teaching, which warns that the Last Battle can swiftly fall upon the Church, and that she must always be ready for it (Mark 13:37; 2 Thess. 2:1–10; Rev. 16:15). It leaves a naively optimistic Church vulnerable to the shock of the sudden rise of the Antichrist, and to all the spiritual disillusionment that must flow from such a disappointment. These dire consequences are rooted in Postmillennialism’s failure to see that the entire Era of Proclamation is a season of Gospel combat, conflict, and “great tribulation” (Rev. 7:14).

Finally, Postmillennialism tends to trivialize the Last Battle and the Judgment. Both are solemn events that will engulf huge swaths of humanity. Postmillennialism pictures the Last Battle as an unfortunate ripple upon a sea of millennial bliss. Similarly, it minimizes the gravity of the Judgment by implying that in virtue of the Golden Era of Gospel progress, relatively few souls will be lost.

On both counts the DNT disagrees. Our Lord said that throughout the Church Era, and especially at its end, his disciples will be hated by all nations (Matt. 10:16–25; 24:9). John relates that the number of those who will wage war against the eschatological camp and city of the saints will be “like the sands of the seashore” (Rev. 20:8). As for the ratio of the saved to the lost, we are unwise to engage in speculation (Luke 13:22–30). Nevertheless, it is sobering to recall that wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and that many go in by it (Matt. 7:13; 13:24–30, 36–43); that Christ refers to his Church as “a little flock” (Luke 12:32); and that those who will follow him upon the slopes of the eternal Zion are the first fruits (i.e., the smaller part) of the total harvest of God and the Lamb (Matt. 3:11–12; 13:36–43; James 1:18; Rev. 14:1–4, 14–20). We find, then, that despite its welcome nod to orthodoxy, Postmillennialism gives us a marred and potentially harmful view of the Consummation.

Conclusion

Certainly we can be grateful when our postmillennarian brethren remind us that God has promised to redeem a great multitude of believers out of every tribe, tongue, people and nation (Rev. 5:9; 7:9). And certainly we can join them in affirming that the advance of Christ’s Kingdom will leaven the evil world system in such a way as to have positive impacts on its various institutions, whether cultural, political, or economic (Matt. 5:13–16). By all means, then, let individual Christians serve the Lord in every legitimate sphere of life; let them speak prophetically to the powers that be, urging full conformity to the law of God; and let them be grateful for whatever temporal good their presence may accomplish, whether great or small (John 17:15).

In the end, however, they are wise to view Postmillennialism as a seriously flawed eschatology. As we have seen, it misconstrues the primary purpose of God for the Era of Gospel Proclamation, which is not to Christianize the Domain of Darkness, but rather to rescue a chosen people out of it, and to transfer them into the Kingdom of his beloved Son (Gal. 1:4; Col. 1:13). Its unbiblical doctrine of a Golden Era bleeds into its interpretation of OTKP, distorting the true sense of these precious OT texts. And the same is true concerning the Revelation. But above all, Postmillennialism distorts the believer’s Blessed Hope, focusing it upon an illusory stage of Church history, rather than upon the true signs of the times and the Consummation at Christ’s return (Titus 2:13; 1 Peter 1:13).2

For all these reasons I would urge my postmillennial brethren to come home to your spiritual birth mother: the amillennial eschatology of the classic Reformation. Truly, she has prepared her table well, and is eager to forgive, forget, and savor all good things with her beloved sons.3

Notes:

1. To view a chart giving the structure of the Revelation, click here.
2. For a discussion of the Consummation and the signs preceding it, click here.
3. For an in-depth and up-to-date critique of Postmillennialism, see this outstanding article by Jeremy Sexton.

“Let not your hearts be troubled.”
–John 14:1

 

It is Sunday, March 22, 2020. Here in Santa Rosa, California, we are “sheltering in place,” seeking to avoid contact with the coronavirus that, for many, has proven deadly. In portions of Africa a terrible plague of locusts is currently devouring harvests and threatening famine. In Utah, just days ago, there was an unusually strong earthquake. In Australia, just weeks ago, there were unusually destructive fires along the densely populated coasts.

How are Christians to understand such things? How are we to avoid debilitating fear and panic? How are we to comfort our non-Christian neighbors, as they—who are sitting in darkness, and in the land and shadow of death—secretly endure existential dread? How are we to quarantine our minds against doomsday scenarios that prompt us to quit our jobs, move to another country, stockpile rations, or buy up guns and ammunition? In short, in the midst of calamity, how are we to keep our cool till the end of the world, thereby fulfilling both our ministries and our highest calling, which is to glorify the Lord?

I am so grateful that the Lord himself has anticipated all these things: the earth-shaking events, the unique temptations, the unavoidable questions, and the special evangelistic opportunities they represent. And I am grateful for the provision he has made for us to face them with a wise, calm, compassionate, and God-honoring spirit. In this post I would like to consider his provision at some length. My focus will be on two biblical larders that are filled to the brim.

The Shepherd and His Apostle on Keeping our Cool

Our first text is Matthew 24:1-8. Here we have the opening lines of Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, our Lord’s definitive teaching on the end of the world, the events that will precede it, and everything we need to know to keep our cool and glorify our God until that Day comes. Listen carefully to the voice of the Good Shepherd:

Now after departing from the temple, Jesus was going his way; and his disciples came up to him and called his attention to the temple buildings. But he said to them, “Don’t you see all these things? I tell you the truth: Not one stone in this place will be left on another: Every one of them will be thrown down.” So as he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us: When will these things happen? And what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” In reply, Jesus said to them: “See to it that no one leads you astray, for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will lead many astray. You will also hear of wars and rumors of wars: See that you don’t give way to fear, for these things must take place, but the end has not yet come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. But all these are only the beginning of the birth pains. –Matthew 24:1-8

Our second text was written by the apostle Paul to the Thessalonian Christians. Like the first, it too gives us the voice of the Good Shepherd supplying his people with wisdom and urging calm:

Now in regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to our being gathered together to him, we urge you, brothers, not to be alarmed or suddenly shaken from your presence of mind, whether by a spirit, an utterance, or a letter supposedly from us, claiming that the Day of the Lord has arrived. Let no one deceive you in any way, for that Day will not come until . . . –2 Thessalonians 2:1-3

It is important to note at the outset that both of these texts really do deal with the end of the world. So do dozens of others found in the Old and New Testaments. Indeed, more than any other book ever written, it is the Bible that has planted in the minds of people everywhere an expectation of the end of the world, however little they may understand what the expression actually entails. This special providence supplies Christians with an excellent platform for Gospel testimony in troubled times. It also requires that they know for sure what the end of the world will involve!

When the disciples questioned the Lord Jesus, they already had definite views on this subject, views that the Lord would have to correct and supplement. In the Olivet Discourse he made a fulsome beginning; after Pentecost, his holy apostles and prophets would make a fulsome end. With their passing and the closure of the biblical canon, divine revelation about the last things would be complete. Henceforth, all that people know or ever can know about the end of the world will be found in the pages of Holy Scripture, and especially in the New Testament. May the Spirit of illumination help us to understand these precious revelations, and to explain them clearly!

I believe we can do so by coming to grips with one of the great themes of biblical eschatology: the Consummation. When Jesus taught his disciples on the Mount of Olives, this was his ultimate theme. Notably, they inquired about three of its central elements: The Coming of Christ, the signs of his Coming, and the end of the age. Concerning these subjects, we now know that the disciples had one thing in mind, and Jesus quite another. They expected Jesus to rise up in the power of God as a national deliverer and king, even as David of old. Jesus, however, expected something very different and vastly greater: that he would die for the sins of the world, rise again to eternal life, ascend into heaven, sit down at the right hand of God as Prophet, Priest, and King, pour out the Holy Spirit upon the Church, send her out into the world to preach the Gospel, and, at the end of the age, come again in the power and glory of his Father, with all his holy angels, to effect the Consummation.

Good Bereans, who search the Scriptures daily to discover God’s eschatological truth, know these things (Acts 17:10-11). They also are familiar with the various elements of the Consummation: The Second Coming of Christ, the Resurrection of the Dead, the Glorification of the Living Saints, the Great Assize of All Sentient Beings before the Judgment Seat of Christ in the air above the Earth, the Last Judgment, the Destruction of the present Earth and its Works by Fire, and the Creation of New Heavens and a New Earth, the eternal home of the redeemed. When Christians hear talk of the end of the world, they think of all this; they think of the Consummation, and they rejoice. When unbelievers hear talk of the end of the world, they really don’t know what to think; yes, some may mock, but deep down all shudder. Christians have a precious balm to pour into the trembling hearts of their neighbors. God grant us the grace to offer it, and our neighbors the grace to receive it.1

This brings us back to the subject at hand: keeping our cool till the end of the world. Both Jesus and Paul know that the Consummation is coming. They know that certain things must happen before it does. They know that in the midst of those things there will be a great potential for deception, misunderstanding, and panic. Their burden is identical: to protect the flock of God from them all. And what is their prescription? I would sum it up in three exhortations: avoid deception, anchor to truth, and keep on keeping on. Let us take a moment to consider each one.


Avoid Deception: It Only Leads to Fear

Note carefully the very first words on Jesus’ lips as he responds to his disciple’s questions: “See to it that no one leads you astray!” Note also those of Paul: “We urge you, brothers, not to be alarmed or suddenly shaken from your presence of mind, whether by a spirit, an utterance, or a letter supposedly from us . . . Let no one deceive you in any way.”

Again, these shepherds know their sheep. They know how easily sheep are deceived. They know how swiftly deception leads to fear. And they also know how in days ahead the prince of the power of the air will flood the atmosphere of the world-system with fear-inducing lies and errors. Accordingly, from the very outset they urge upon the saints the greatest possible caution: “Avoid deception. Be careful about the voices you listen to. When popular notions about the dreadful course of current events knock insistently at the door of your mind, think twice before opening. Test all things, hold fast to what is good. It is easier than you imagine to be deceived and shaken from your steadfastness of mind.”

In a season of world history when electronic floods of “knowledge,” “expert opinion,” and “scientific consensus” sweep over us daily, we must take these words to heart. We must, of course, beware of distortions of biblical teaching about the Consummation. But if we are to walk without fear, we must also avoid non-biblical forms of deception. Other faiths have their own beguiling eschatologies. Secularists have their own doomsday scenarios and intoxicating panaceas. Whether intentionally or not, philosophers, scientists, and politicians can fill our minds with lies, errors, and half-truths, thereby flooding our hearts with doubt, confusion, and fear. We all have heard their trumpet blasts: man-made climate change, eco-disaster, overpopulation, economic collapse, gun violence and anarchy, aliens ominously streaking through our skies. The list goes on.2 But as deception and dread beckon, the saints must hear again the word of the Lord: “See to it that no one leads you astray . . . See that you don’t give way to fear!”


Anchor to Truth: It Always Leads to Peace, Confidence, and Eager Expectation

First the Lord and his apostle tell us to avoid deception. Then they tell us how to do it: Anchor yourselves to truth, for it always leads to peace, confidence, and an eager expectation of the return of Christ, who will replace the present evil age with a glorious World to Come.

Each of us will have to develop a case-sensitive strategy for honoring this command. Nevertheless, speaking broadly, I cannot doubt that it will involve saturating ourselves with the Scriptures. God has granted his people to be born from above. He has given them the Spirit of Truth. He is eager to guide them into truth, and to anchor them to truth, if only they will dig deep into the Word of Truth. The Good Shepherd identified himself as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Once the flock has heard his voice in the Scriptures, they will have an ear for the truth, and so become deaf to deception. Then, when they hear the voice of a stranger, they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers (John 10:5).

To walk steadfastly at all times, we shall have to be mastered by all of God’s truth. To keep our cool till the end of the world, we shall have to be mastered by a certain species of his truth—eschatological truth: truth about the Consummation, and in particular, truth about the historical signs that point ahead to it. Again, each of us must study these things for ourselves. By my lights, they fall into two categories: signs of the beginning of cosmic rebirth, and signs of the imminence of cosmic rebirth. Let us take a moment to look at them both.

1. Signs of the Beginning of Cosmic Rebirth

In our first text, the Lord himself prepares and steadies his disciples by teaching them about “the beginning of the birth pains” (Matthew 24:8). This is a fabulously rich metaphor. He has in mind certain signs—signs that will recur throughout the entire remainder of the present evil age. As we shall see, many of them are judgments of God. For this reason the signs could aptly be called “death throes,” since they signal the death of the world as we now know it. Jesus, however, prefers to call them birth pains. That’s because, at a deeper level, the signs point, not simply to judgment and death, but also and ultimately to redemption and eternal life. Thus, he likens the world to a pregnant woman. The disciples are to know that because of her sin, painful judgments will indeed come upon her. But more importantly, they also are to know that the judgments herald a great blessing: the return of Christ, the Consummation, and the birth of a new and glorious World to Come!

Once again, these particular signs are unique in that they appear throughout the present evil age, an age that began with the fall of man in Eden, but which now has been invaded by Christ and the Gospel. Accordingly, these signs reflect the clash of the Kingdom of God with the kingdom of Satan, a clash that will continue throughout the entire era of Gospel proclamation (Rev. 12:1ff). All past generations of Christians have seen them; all future generations of Christians can expect to see them. Jesus tells us that they are indeed signs of the end: of the Consummation. But he also tells us that they are signs that the end has not yet come (Matthew 24:6). More on this in a moment.

The beginning of the birth pains is itself twofold. On the one hand, it includes what are manifestly judgments of God: wars, rumors of war, famines, earthquakes, pestilence, and other such calamities. Yes, the decisions of sinful men often contribute to them. But like the events themselves, those decisions are also under the control of Providence. Because of men’s sin, rebellion, and idolatry, God hands them over to a debased mind. Professing to be wise, they become fools. As a result, they make foolish decisions, all of which lead to the judgments of God (Romans 1:18f). I live in California, where thousands of abortions occur daily, where suicide is legal, where sexual immorality is rampant, where “gaming” is widespread, and where marijuana production and distribution is currently classified as an “essential industry.” Not surprisingly, our state is also the site of all manner of disasters: crumbling infrastructure, gang warfare, homelessness, deep pockets of poverty, destructive fires, and now the spread of the coronavirus. Politicians try to blame their opponents and their policies. Christians know to ascribe them to human sin, divine providence, and the judgments of God.

Very importantly, these particular judgments are not final. They do indeed point to the Last Judgment, but they are not the Last Judgment itself. They point to the end of the world, but they will not accomplish it. Rather, as the apostle John saw, they are trumpets of God, warning of the coming Consummation (Revelation 8:1f). Therefore, alongside the judgments, and mitigating the judgments, there appears another sign, a sign of God’s great mercy and love: the preaching of the Gospel. Believers must take this to heart. It is only through the ministry of the Church that terrified sinners, staggering under the judgments of God, can behold what the judgments portend. And it is only through this same ministry that they can behold the God-ordained City of Refuge, to which they may flee for safety (Numbers 36:6f; 1 Thessalonians 1:10).

The Lord also warns that the beginning of the birth pains includes what are manifestly acts of Satan: the emergence of false Christs, false prophets, and false teachers; the apostasy of false believers; and the persecution of the true spiritual Church at the hands of an unbelieving world (Matthew 24:4-14). The latter is especially significant in the economy of the present age. Persecution elicits the urgent prayers of the saints, who plead with God to grant them justice against their adversaries. Jesus assures them that though God seems to delay in answering, he will not do so for long (Luke 18:1-8). Though silence seems to reign in heaven, it is only for half an hour. Moreover, throughout that half hour the cries of the persecuted are mingled with his grace, and rise like incense before his throne. Soon the angel will cast fire upon the earth. Soon there will be claps of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and shakings of the earth. Soon the trumpets will sound again. Soon there will be more judgments in the earth: signs and warnings of a Consummation that will not sleep, and that has long been on its way (2 Peter 2:3; Revelation 8:1f).

But again, if the saints are to keep their cool till the end of the world they must hear well the Lord’s warning: “Such things must happen, but the end is still to come” (Matthew 24:6). Yes, the beginning of the birth pains tells us that the end is fast approaching (Revelation 12:12). But these same signs also tell us that the end is not yet here. In other words, the Church is to understand that the Consummation will not come by means of these signs. It will not come by ordinary providence, and it certainly will not come at the hand of man (e.g., man-made climate change, germ warfare, nuclear holocaust, etc.). Rather, it will come at God’s appointed time, and in God’s appointed way. It will come at the return of the High King of Heaven, and it will be effected by his Word, his Spirit, his angels, and his people (Daniel 7; Revelation 19). Until then, the signs that point to cosmic rebirth will continue. Like a woman in labor, the world will groan, then rest, then groan again. Judgment will fall, blessing will follow, and judgment will fall again. Turmoil will explode upon the scene, business as usual will ensue, and turmoil will again explode upon the scene (Genesis 8:21-22; Matthew 24:36-41; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11). So shall the cosmic labor continue throughout the remainder of this age, with the contractions increasing both in strength and frequency, until at last the World to Come is born and the Bride of Christ is filled with everlasting joy (John 16:21, Revelation 21:1f).

In all of this the mission of the Church is clear. The judgments of God are meant to lead the world to repentance and faith. The blessings of God are meant to lead the world to repentance and faith. And the Gospel preaching of the Church—in which both the judgments and the blessings are interpreted and applied—is meant to lead the world to repentance and faith (Romans 2:4). Accordingly, the Lord’s disciples must never allow themselves to be distracted or unsettled by the beginning of the birth pains. Rather, they must anchor to the truth, keep their cool, and occupy till their Lord comes. In particular, they must seize every God-given opportunity to advance the cause of Christ; and as they do, they must make wise use of “the signs of the time” (Matthew 16:3).

2. Signs of the Imminence of Cosmic Rebirth

There is a second category of signs: signs pointing to the imminence of cosmic rebirth. We see this in the further words of Christ and Paul. Blending predictions of the imminent destruction of Jerusalem with predictions of the Consummation, Jesus speaks of several of these signs (Matthew 24:15-28). In 2 Thessalonians 2 the apostle Paul speaks speak of two in particular: a final world rebellion against the Law and Gospel of God, coupled with a final world leader: an imitator and opponent of the true Christ, who is therefore called the Man of Lawlessness and the Antichrist (2 Thessalonians 2:3-12; 1 John 2:18, 4:3). Other New Testament texts give us a few more.

These signs are different from the beginning of the birth pains: They do not appear throughout the entire era of Gospel proclamation, but only towards, or at, its end. Yes, they are birth pains, but they are the final pains. Here, the cosmic birth process reaches transition. Here there is great agony, but also great ecstasy just on the other side. Awareness of these signs is of great value to the pilgrim Church. Until she sees them come to pass, she knows that the end is “still to come.” When she sees them come to pass, she knows to endure bravely and with great expectation: the shout of the Bridegroom will soon be heard ringing throughout the universe!

By my lights the following biblically predicted events fall into this special category of signs:

  • The completion of world evangelization (Matthew 24:14; Rev. 5:9)
  • The conversion of the great mass of world Jewry (Genesis 45; Luke 21:23-24; Romans 11:11-32)
  • Extraordinarily deep and widespread spiritual darkness (Matthew 24:12; Luke 17:26-30; 2 Thessalonians 2:3)
  • The rise of a satanically controlled and empowered personal Antichrist; the advent of a one-world government, religion, and economy, all of them more or less completely under his control; and a brief but fierce persecution of the true spiritual Church at his hand (Matthew 24:15, 21; 2 Thessalonians 1ff; 1 John 2:1; Revelation 11:7-10, 16:12-16, 19:17-21, 20:7-10)
  • Extraordinary disruptions in the heavens, on the earth, and in world society (Daniel 12:10; Matthew 24:21-22; Luke 21:25-26).

Yes, when the Church sees all these things coming to pass, she may confidently say, “He is near, even at the door!” But will that be a license for her to panic? Far from it! For in that day, by the Spirit of grace, she will find herself doing exactly as her heavenly Husband instructed: Despite all her suffering, she will straighten up, lift up her head, and know that her redemption—even the Consummation of all things—is drawing nigh (Luke 21:28)!

Keep on Keeping On

Why have the Lord and his apostles given us all this trustworthy eschatological truth? The answer is clear: to provide an anchor for our souls, so that when we see the beginning of the births pains—things like the coronavirus, or a plague of locusts in Africa, or raging fires in Australia, or severe earthquakes in Utah—we will not give way to fear, or be shaken from the peace, confidence, and eager expectation that is ours in Christ.

Rather, watching carefully for the true signs of the imminence of the Lord’s Return, we will keep on keeping on. We will faithfully take our nourishment as we journey through the wilderness of this present evil age (Revelation 12:14). We will resolutely abide in the Vine (John 15:4-5). We will diligently follow the Lamb wherever he goes (Revelation 14:4). We will patiently exercise our spiritual gifts (Romans 12:6-8). We will prayerfully and practically love one another (John 13:34; James 2:16; 1 John 3:19). And as we do all these things, we will make every possible Spirit-led effort to love our neighbor, calm his fears, anchor him to the truth, and—God willing—give him a hand up into that great Ark of eternal safety, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thus shall we keep our cool till the end of the world, and thus shall we glorify the Lord.

 

NOTES

1. For a closer look at the Consummation, please click here.
2. Here is a short article illustrating how long the list can be.