Dear Aunt Tracy: The Great End Time Debate Clarified for Busy Homemakers and Teens
Actually, Aunt Tracy is my sister-in-law. However, she is indeed a busy (and most excellent) homemaker. For that reason–and also because she was delving into Isaiah at Ladies Bible Study Fellowship–she once asked me to write her something SHORT on the question of the Millennium (Revelation 20).
Now, if you know me at all, you know I don’t do short. Nevertheless, I trust that the following letter—which was short by MY standards—proved helpful to her.
I post it here in hopes that it will also be helpful to anyone else who is looking for a brief introduction (and proposed solution) to the Great End Time Debate.
Dear Aunt Tracy,
Thanks for asking me about the Millennium, and about how to interpret OT prophecies of the coming Kingdom of God.
Your request is both a challenge and an opportunity. It’s a challenge because this debate can get pretty complicated; and it’s an opportunity because explaining the gist of it in an uncomplicated manner could be quite helpful, not only to you, but also to many others who are unlikely to wade into big theological tomes on eschatology.
So—keeping “short” ever before my eyes—I’m eager to begin.
The question of the Millennium is like the tip of an iceberg: All sorts of interesting materials lie hidden under the surface. This becomes especially clear when we take a quick look at the two main views popular among Christians today.
Premillennialism is the view that Christ will come again BEFORE a future 1000 year reign upon the earth. This means that most premillennarians believe the Kingdom of God enters history in three separate stages: The present Church Era of Gospel Proclamaton, the Millennium, and the eternal World to Come.
As you read and listen to various ministers, you will run into two basic kinds of premillennialism: Historic and Dispensational. By far, the latter is the most common. Nevertheless, let me begin with a few words about its birth mother, Historic Premillennialism (HP).
There are two different kinds of HP. Let’s look briefly at both them.
1. New Covenant (or Christian) HP.
This view was held by some of the early church fathers, such a Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian. It has popped up from time to time throughtout Church History. Today quite a number of theologians embrace it, men like George Ladd, Craig Blomberg, and Jim Hamiliton.
According to NCHP, the Church is at the center of the millennial scenario. Here there is little or no emphasis upon ethnic Israel, or a millennial return to OT institutions such as Temple worship, animal sacrifices, and the observance of Feast Days. OT prophecies that seem to predict such things are interpreted as speaking “mysteriously” (i.e., symbolically, figuratively) of life under the New Covenant, the spiritual Kingdom introduced by that Covenant, and the people of that Covenant: the Church, comprised of Jew and Gentile together.
Here, then, is what the future looks like according to NCHP: After a brief season of great tribulation, Christ will return to the earth to destroy the Antichrist and his followers, and to confine Satan to the abyss. Then he will resurrect both the OT and NT saints, transform the living saints, partially lift the curse from nature, and welcome his glorified Church into the Millennium, where she will rule with him for 1000 years in a new Jerusalem. His subjects will apparently be the children of unbelievers who were allowed to enter the Millennium; many will love and serve the Lord, but some will not. At the end of the Millennium, Satan will be released to test the nations, and will succeed in inciting a brief rebellion against Christ and the saints. But God will step in to destroy all His enemies, after which comes the second resurrection (of the wicked), the Last Judgment, and the creation of the World to Come, the eternal home of the redeemed.
2. Old Covenant (or Jewish) HP.
In this kind of HP, ethnic Israel is very much at the center of the Millennium. Here, OT prophecies of a coming theocratic kingdom are interpreted more or less literally, with the result that students of this school anticipate great things for the Jews: They will be converted in large numbers prior to, or at, Christ’s second coming, and then exalted to a special status in their Messiah’s millennial kingdom. Also, there will be a return to various OT ordinances. For example, an enormous millennial temple will be built, priests will offer animal sacrifices commemorating the work of Christ, and the nations will observe various Jewish Feasts. This view became quite popular in the 19th century, and was defended by men like David Baron, George Peters, and Nathaniel West. Note, however, that apart from its emphasis upon God’s plan for the Jews, it envisions the course of Salvation History in much the same way as the proponents of NCHP.
Aunt Tracy, as you read the NT carefully, I trust you will find that it does not support either form of HP. For example, the NT repeatedly teachs that the Mosaic Law has been fulfilled and rendered forever obsolete by Christ and the New Covenant; that the Israelite theocracy has now given way, once and for all, to a spiritual Kingdom in which there is no longer any distinction between Jew and Gentile; that the reign of the Messiah promised in the OT emanates from heaven above, and not from the earth beneath; and that it will be fully consummated by the Lord’s return in glory, when, following the Resurrection and the Last Judgment, he introduces the eternal state: the new heavens and the new earth (Mt. 5:17, 9:14-17, Acts 2, Eph. 1, Gal. 3:28, Col. 1:13, Heb. 8, 2 Peter 3).
In short, both forms of HP teach that the Kingdom of God enters history in three stages, with the (confusing) result that we must multiply the comings, resurrections, judgments, and transformations of nature biblically associated with the end of the age. But again, as you study the NT you will find that it actually teaches a much simpler view: the Kingdom enters history in just two stages, separated by a single, powerful, and quite glorious Consummation at the second Coming of Christ. More on this in a moment.
Now brace yourself, Aunt Tracy, because I’m afraid things are about to get a little more complicated! That’s because since around 1850, a new “Dispensational” form premillennialism has ruled the roost among many smaller Protestant churches and denominations. Like OCHP it interprets OT prophecy quite literally, and therefore shows a similar interest in the future of ethnic Israel. However, this system goes even further, teaching that God actually has two different plans for two different peoples: an earthly plan for ethnic Israel, and a heavenly plan for the Church. Some Dispensationalists even teach that this distinction will endure throughout all eternity! (1)
In order to maintain this notion of two plans for two peoples, Dispensationalists must further multiply the great end time events, asserting that the glorified Christ will return THREE times: once at “the secret Rapture” (when Christ removes his heavenly people, the Church, to their home above); a second time at the end of a seven year tribulation (when he introduces the Millennium, in which God’s plan for his earthly people, Israel, is fulfilled at last); and a third and final time at the end of the Millennium (when Christ administers the Last Judgment and brings in the new heavens and the new earth). All of this in turn requires THREE separate resurrections and THREE different judgments! (For a diagram of Dispensational eschatology, click here)
If, then, God intended our blessed hope to be clear, simple, and sheep-friendly, I’m thinking this can’t possibly be it.
From the very beginning of the NT era this has been the majority view of the Christian Church, especially since the days of Augustine and Athanasius. It appears in the most ancient creeds (e.g. the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed) and the doctrinal standards of all the major denominations: Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and Methodist. Though it is presently the minority position among evangelical Protestants, the current revival of interest in Reformed theology is definitely causing its stock to rise!
The word Amillennialism means “no millennium.” However, as we shall see, the amillennarian does not deny the existence of a millennium, only that it is a future, literal 1000 year reign of Christ on earth.
Amillennialism is easy to understand and easy to defend from the NT.
It teaches that the Kingdom of God is divided into just two stages: 1) the present heavenly reign of the exalted Christ, and 2) the future eternal kingdom of the Father (and Christ), set under new heavens and in a new earth. Quite a number of NT passages present the Kingdom in this manner (Mt. 13, Luke 19:11f, 1 Cor. 15:20-28, Eph. 1:15-23, Col. 3:1f, etc.). (For a diagram illustrating the two stages of the Kingdom, click here)
Very importantly, the two stages of the one Kingdom are separated by a single Consummation of Salvation History. At the center of it all is the Parousia, or the coming again of the glorified Lord Jesus Christ, both to judge and to redeem, consummately.
At that time, Christ will descend from heaven bodily, in great power and glory, to raise the dead, transform the living saints, gather all sentient beings (both men and angels) before his throne in the air, judge the world in righteousness, destroy the earth and its works with fire, and create new heavens and a new earth, the eternal home of the redeemed. It is very impressive to see how many NT passages consistently anticipate this single majestic coming again of the Lord Jesus Christ (Mt. 13, 24-25, 1 Cor. 15, Phil. 3:17-21, 1 Thess. 4, 2 Thess. 2, 2 Peter 3). (For a list of all the major NT texts dealing with the Consummation, click here)
Because I believe Amillennialism is the eschatology of Christ and the apostles, I will discuss the rest of the issues in the Great End Time Debate from this perspective.
Making Sense of the Millennium
If the Kingdom of God comes in just two stages, what are we to make of the Millennium? The solution is not difficult. As a close reading of Revelation 20 will show, John is not speaking of a future earthly reign of Christ, but rather of the era of his present heavenly reign: the Church era, the time between Christ’s first and second advents.
The Structure of the Revelation
One important way to see this is to understand the structure of the Revelation as a whole, and especially chapters 6-20. (For a helpful chart, click here) This large section of the Revelation is aptly entitled The Course of the Heavenly King’s Reign. As many commentators have observed, here Christ’s heavenly reign is described six separate times, in six parallel large-scale visions that draw heavily upon OT language and imagery.
They are: 1) The Six Seals (chapter 6, followed by a sneak preview of the World to Come in chapter 7); 2) The Seven Trumpets (chapters 8-11); 3) The Woman and the Dragon (chapters 12-14); 4) The Seven Bowls (chapters 15-16); 5) The Fall of the Dragon’s Helpers (chapters 17-19); and 6) The 1000 years (chapter 20).
That this is the true strcuture of the Revelation is seen clearly from the fact that towards the end of each of these six visions we often receive a symbolic description of the Last Battle (i.e., the final conflict between Christ and Satan, the Church and the World), and always receive a depiction of Christ’s coming again in jugdment at the end of the age.
With all this in mind, let’s take a quick look at the sixth and final vision of this section of the Revelation, the Vision of the 1000 Years (Revelation 20). Again, remember that all through the Revelation the Spirit was often pleased to use OT ideas and images to convey important truths about spiritual life in Christ’s kingdom under the New Covenant.
Rev. 20:1-3: The Binding of Satan for “1000” Years
Here John tells us that at the beginning of the Church era Satan is bound FROM DECEIVING THE NATIONS ANY LONGER. Prior to Christ’s first coming, they were largely in his hand (Luke 4:6). Now, however, the fullness of time has come; now Christ has died and risen again; now God’s redemptive activity can finally overflow the borders of Israel; now the gospel can go forth to all nations; now Satan can be cast out, and God’s elect children brought in, without fail (John 12:20-36).
So then, the message here is carefully circumscribed: During the period between Christ’s two advents, Satan is not swept off the stage of history into the abyss. Rather, he will indeed remain present and active in the world, but with respect to the progress of the gospel among the elect, he is completely bound, for his authority over them has been completely shattered (Mt. 12, John 12, Rev. 12). Yes, at the end of the age, he will be released for a little while to deceive the inhabitants of the earth once again, but here too he is bound: Until that time comes God will keep him from gathering the nations together against the Church for the Last Battle.
As for the length of the era between the two advents of Christ, the Spirit represents it as 1000 years. This number symbolizes both magnitude and divine completeness (10x10x10). In other words, the Spirit wanted the saints to know that Christ will not return quickly; that there will be a long time between his first and second advents. But he also wanted us to know that this longish time will be purposeful and fruitful, for in it the Triune God will complete the ingathering of his Church through the preaching of the Gospel, which the exalted Christ himself spearheads from his throne above (Acts 2).
Revelation 20:4-6: The Reign of the Saints for “1000” Years
Concerning the reign of the saints spoken of here, notice first that John sees the SOULS of faithful saints ruling with their Lord. This is not an earthly reign, but a heavenly. These saints are “reigning in life” with Christ (Rom. 5:17); that is, having completed their earthly course victoriously, they now reign victoriously in heaven over all the dark powers that formerly accosted them upon the earth. This is the meaning of “the first resurrection.” At the moment of their death, faithful saints, already risen to newness of life in Christ (Rom. 6), now rise to the perfection of that life in heaven. Also, once in heaven, “judgment is given to them,” not in the sense that they henceforth share in Christ’s present heavenly reign over the nations (and certainly not that they will reign with him upon the earth in a future millennium), but rather that at his coming they will participate in the final judgment of the world (Daniel 7, Rom. 16:20, 1 Cor. 61f, Rev. 3:26-27, 19:11-15). In sum, the great purpose of this portion of Revelation 20 is to encourage the Church Militant to be faithful until death, at which time great blessings await them in heaven, blessings that include a central role in the Last Judgment at Christ’s return.
Revelation 20:7-11: The Last Battle and the Judgment of Satan at the End of the “1000” Years
At the end of the “1000 years” (i.e., the end of the Church era and the present evil age), the devil will be released to deceive the nations one final time, thereby inciting a final battle between Satan and Christ, the world and the Church (Gen. 3:15). This solemn theme pervades the Revelation, and is found in other portions of the OT and NT as well (Rev. 11:7-10, 16:12-16, 19:17-21; Dan. 9, Ezek. 38-39, Zech. 11-12; Mt. 24, 2 Thess. 2). Every text in which this theme appears makes it clear that the Last Battle will brief, cut short by the coming again of Christ in power and glory to rescue his own. According to the apostle Paul, this is one of the two or three great signs by which latter day believers may know that Christ’s return is very near, even at the door (2 Thess. 2).
Revelation 20:11-15: The Last Judgment of All Mankind at the End of the “1000” Years
As the NT teaches pervasively, the return of Christ leads immediately to a general bodily resurrection of the dead, after which comes the Last Judgment. Christ himself will administer it, seated upon his throne in the air above the earth. Here, as elsewhere in the NT, we see all men (and angels) gathered before him. While all are judged according to their works, salvation itself is by God’s sovereign grace, through faith in Christ. All who who have trusted in the High King of Heaven will find their names written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. Gladly and gratefully, they will descend with him to a glorious new earth, the eternal home of the redeemed (Rev. 21:1f).
Understanding OT Kingdom Prophecy
We have seen that the NT does not leave room for a third, millennial stage of the Kingdom. We have also seen that the NT declares the Mosaic Law—now fulfilled in Christ—to be obsolete. What then are we to make of the many OT Kingdom prophecies that seem to predict an eternal, universal Mosaic theocracy? (2)
Christ and the apostles themselves point the way.
On the one hand, they teach us what the Kingdom really is: the direct spiritual reign of God, through Christ, by the Spirit, over a redeemed people who, through faith, have been transferred from the Domain of Darkness into the spiritual Kingdom of God’s beloved Son; a reign that appears in two stages, separated by a single Parousia of Christ at the end of the age (Mt. 13:36-43, John 3:1f, Col. 1:13).
On the other hand, having revealed to us the true nature of the Kingdom, Christ and the apostles implicitly tell us what the Kingdom is not: It is not an eternal Mosaic theocracy. For the Mosaic theocracy was simply a temporary picture or “shadow” of the Christ-centered spiritual Kingdom that now has come, and soon will come in fulness (Col. 2:16-17, Heb. 9:1f).
Therefore, it is clear that we must interpret OT Kingdom prophecy figuratively, or “typologically.” That is, we must understand that in former times the Spirit of God moved the prophets to use (typological) language and imagery drawn from the history and institutions of the Mosaic Law in order to depict the two-fold spiritual Kingdom introduced and unveiled by Christ and the New Covenant. (3)
Accordingly, when we come across a particular OT Kingdom prophecy, we must put on our NT glasses, emulate Christ and the apostles, and see it as fulfilled either in Christ’s heavenly reign, or in the new heavens and new earth, or in both.
To get a feel for how this works let’s look very briefly at a couple such prophecies.
Imagine you’re a Jew living in the time of King David. You read Psalm 2 and conclude, naturally enough, that one day soon the LORD will raise up a mighty Israelite king, install him on the earthly Zion, and grant him such military success that in the end all nations will either humble themselves before him and his God, or perish. In short, through this Spirit-anointed king, the reign of the LORD (and the Law of the LORD) will cover the whole earth.
When, however, you read the NT, you realize from any number of passages that this prophecy has a heavenly fulfillment in Christ and his Church (Acts 13:33, Heb. 1:5, 5:5). God the Father, having exalted the incarnate Christ to his own right hand, has “begotten” him as the First-born Son over the whole household of God; indeed, over the whole creation itself (Heb. 1:1f, 3:6). Even now Christ reigns, not upon the earthly Zion, but the heavenly (Heb. 12:22). Even now, through the preaching of the Gospel, God is giving him the (believing) nations as his inheritance (Rev. 5:9). Therefore, even now all kings—and all peoples—are wise to “kiss” the Son in faith and obedience, before he returns in judgment to shatter the rebels like vessels of clay (Rev. 2:37, 12:5, 19:15).
So, in Psalm 2 God certainly meant what he said. But only in the NT does he fully say what he meant.
As with Psalm 2, so here: Take it at face value and you must conclude that in days ahead God will raise up a Royal Priest who, having gathered to himself a mighty army of zealous young warriors, will extend the reign of the LORD from Zion over all nations—leaving no impenitent enemy to survive.
When, however, we consult the NT, we repeatedly learn that the fulfillment of this prophecy is not earthly and physical, but heavenly and spiritual. When the exalted Christ entered heaven, God the Father sat him down at his own right hand, making him the eternal King and High Priest of his people. Through the work of the Spirit and the preaching of the Gospel, these believers will “volunteer freely” to serve their Lord in “the Day of his power” (i.e., throughout his heavenly mediatorial reign). When at last their mission is accomplished, Christ will come again in judgment to “shatter the head over a broad country” (i.e., Satan), and place every other spiritual and physical enemy under his feet, including death itself.
Psalm 110 is, then, still another picture of the course, character, and consummation of Christ’s heavenly reign, couched in the language of the OT Law (Acts 2:34-35, 3:19-24, 1 Cor. 15:20-28, Eph. 1:15-23).
Premillenarians enthusiastically claim this famous Kingdom prophecy for their own, arguing that it gives us a picture of world conditions during a future millennial reign of Christ on earth. However, here Isaiah says nothing about Christ living upon the earth, nor anything about his ruling for 1000 years. With eyes schooled by the NT, we can, however, see in verses 1-5 the entire course of Christ’s redemptive mission, from his incarnation, to his heavenly reign, to his second coming, at which time he will judge the world in righteousness by the rod of his mouth and the breath of his lips (see 2 Thess. 2:8). Then, in verses 6-9, we find the Spirit using OT images of divine blessing to picture the second stage of the Kingdom, the new heavens and the new earth that Christ himself will create. In picturesque language that would resonate in the hearts of his OT saints, God is pleased to call this glorious new world “all My holy mountain” (Phil. 3:21, Isaiah 65:25, Heb. 12:18-24, Revelation 14:1-5).
Micah 4:1-4 (Isaiah 2:1-4)
Here is another favorite among premillenarians. And it must be admitted that a strictly literal reading of this prophecy bids us look for a (very BIG) latter day temple, situated upon an earthly Mt. Zion, to which Gentile nations will stream, and from which the Mosaic Law will somehow go forth until, at last, the final judgments of the LORD bring in his perfected kingdom.
But again, the NT invites us to adopt a deeper, more spiritual understanding.
Seeing, for example, that the events predicted here are set in “the last days,” we know that they pertain to the things of Christ (Heb. 1:11, Pet. 1:10-12). Likewise, we understand from the NT that the OT temple was merely a picture of the eternal habitation of God: Christ and his Body, the Church (John 2:19, Eph. 2:21-22). From this, we conclude that the “law” (or instruction) that goes forth from Zion is really the gospel, sent down by Christ from the Jerusalem above, and disseminated by his gospel heralds in such a way that many nations of believing peoples “go up,” in spirit and in truth, to worship him there (John 4:21-24). One day soon he will return in judgment, so that ever after his peace-loving children may sit, each under his own vine and under his own fig tree, in the beautiful, fruitful new world to come.
Does God’s Use of Figurative Language Make Him a Deceiver?
Does it seem strange to you that in OT times God veiled his truth about the coming King and Kingdom in “mystical” or typological language drawn from the Mosaic Law under which ethnic Israel was then living (2 Cor. 3, Col. 2:16f, Heb. 8:1f)? It does to many premillenarians, who reject the very idea of it, feeling that this would make God a deceiver.
But is not God at liberty to bring his truth to his people in a form that pleases him? What if he desired somewhat to veil the truth of the Kingdom so as to reserve for his Son the honor of sovereignly drawing back that veil (2 Cor. 3:7-18); the honor of disclosing the “true truth” about the Kingdom (Mt. 13); the honor of illuminating the minds of the saints once for all (Luke 24:44-45); and the honor of opening their eyes to the deep, underlying substance of the Law and the Prophets: the Person and work Christ (John 5:39, 45-46)?
While we may not fully understand all of God’s ways in the OT, we definitely know enough from the NT not to quarrel with them. For more on this important question, please click here.
Aunt Tracy, just in case this letter is too short, let me add a few final words of encouragement.
I definitely get it that eschatology is complicated and controversial. But that’s because it is deep, important, and potentially life-changing. If so, you can be sure the devil will do everything in his power to keep us in the dark about it.
Do we want to understand God’s plan of salvation? Do we want to behold the true course and character of Salvation History? Do we want to understand and enjoy the Old Testament? Do we want a clear, inspiring picture of our Blessed Hope: the Coming again of Christ, and all the amazing, awesome, wonderful things he will do when he comes?
If so, we’ve got to wrestle with eschatology.
Here then, in a summary paragraph, are my concluding thoughts on the whole matter:
I believe that the mystery of the spiritual, two-staged Kingdom of God introduced by the New Covenant—the mystery that God planned before the foundation of the world, and that Jesus and his apostles unveiled to us all (Mt. 13)—is the Master Key that will one day resolve the Great End Time Debate. That’s because it opens up just about everything of importance in the study of eschatology: the proper interpretation of OT Kingdom prophecy, the structure and theme of the Revelation, the meaning of the Millennium, and the nature and purpose of the Consummation at the end of the age.
Small wonder, then, that in teaching us about these mysteries, our Lord himself said, “Blessed are your eyes, because they see. For many righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it; and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Mt. 13:17).
Therefore, let us ponder these things often and with great care, understanding that in them Christ has indeed placed a precious key in our hands; a key that turns ordinary folk like us into NT scribes, so that we might bring out of his great treasury of divine wisdom things old and new—and so feed and enrich the world. (4)
- Here too the NT disagrees. Christ himself declares that henceforth elect Jews and Gentiles are one flock with one shepherd (John 10). The apostle Paul says that God has broken down the middle wall of partition between the two peoples once and for all (Eph. 2:11-18), and that together they constitute a single olive tree in His sight (Romans 11). John, in the Revelation, depicts the OT and NT people of God as one woman: the Mother of the Living and the Bride of Christ (Rev. 12). Here is MORE material for further study among Good Bereans!
- One major problem with the premillennial view is that the OT prophecies of a coming theocratic Kingdom do not limit it to 1000 years, but instead depict it as enduring forever (Isaiah 65:18, Jer. 17:25, Ezek. 37:25, 43:7). Therefore, the millennial solution is really no solution at all.
- Very importantly, in Jeremiah 31:31f God and the prophet caution Israel (and us Christian interpreters) against anticipating the presence of the Mosaic Law in the days of the Kingdom. This, in turn, should incline us to adopt a more figurative approach to the entire OT, an approach that sees the New Covenant mystically foreshadowed in the Old. In the book of Hebrews, the inspired author consistently does this very thing
- For further study on eschatology, see my book The High King of Heaven,and also the excellent work by Anthony Hoekema, called The Bible and the Future (Eerdmans). For an inspiring exegetical and devotional commentary on the Revelation, see William Hendriksen, More Than Conquerors (Baker). For further study of Amillennialism, click here.