Why I am not a Premillennialist: A Short Case Against Premillennialism and for Amillennialism
I have contemplated blogging on this particular subject for quite some time now. It’s an important subject, to be sure. Yet on the other hand, I don’t see it as a subject worth dividing over. The majority of people I know are premillennial, and dispensational premillennial at that. (as opposed to historic premillennialism) And of course, these many folks that I know are no less Christian than those of us who are not premillennialists. However, I have noticed that premillennialists, especially of the dispensational variety, are very quick to levy derogatory terms at non-premillennialists. In this blog I first intend to show that the labeling done by premillennialists towards non-premillennialists is quite unfair and is not representative of what non-premillennialists hold to, sometimes even crossing over into serious misrepresentation. After covering these straw men arguments that are used against non-premillennialists (specifically covenant theologians), I will then move into the major premise of this blog. That is, why I am not a premillennialist.
It is of importance to note, from the outset, that much of the disagreements I put forth in this essay are directed at dispensationalism. But I also must say in reply to that a few things. First, I do not consider dispensationalist heresy or by any means outside of orthodox Christianity. The system as a whole has taken quite a lot of heat since its inception. It’s origins are generally attributed to J. N. Darby, originator of the Plymouth Brethren movement, which Darby simply called the Brethren. While it is true that Darby may have been the first one, and surely one of the first, to systematize dispensationalism, that does not make it inherently incorrect simply based on its newness as a system. As always, our infallible covenant canon is Holy Writ, and our infallible guide is the Holy Spirit. Thus, my comments, criticisms, and disagreements with dispensationalist thought should not be taken as scathing insults, and hopefully I can be objective enough to avoid straw men and ad hominem attacks in my disagreements with the system. I now will push forth into my arguments against premillennialism and in favor of amillennialism. I seek to show that amillennial eschatology is certainly not just a big spiritualization of Scripture, but rather, arises from a literal and consistent interpretation of the Word, allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture and the clear to guide us in our interpretations of the vague (analogia fidei - the analogy of faith). I do of course heartily accept dispensational thinkers as brothers and sisters in Christ, and indeed, as no less “Christian” than the rest of us. That said, my disagreements with the system are many, and fundamental to how orthodox Christianity has, for the entire church age, understood the canon of the covenant, that is, the Holy Scriptures, the Word of God.
Although dispensationalists, especially in recent days, have undertaken quite a bit of straw men arguments and even ad hominem attacks, seeming to insist that they know covenant theology better than the covenanters themselves no matter how loudly the covenanters protest, covenant theologians have done the same thing. Neither side is immune from the fallen human nature we have received from Adam’s sin. Thus, this debate is an “in-house” discussion, as it were. The tone of it, in the interest of Christian charity, should be kept gracious. We have the same gospel, after all, and therefore are both members of the body of Christ. The charge of heresy should for certain be kept completely out of this discussion, and I will not use it here, unless it pops up in a quote that I use. There will always be the normal back-and-forth between the two camps, making each others position look extreme. As much as the dispensationalists insist that covenanters are “replacement” theologians (we’re not, I’ll cover that below), the covenanters love to label the dispensationalists as Sensationalists, or DispenSensationalists. I will do my best to deal faithfully with the Biblical texts I quote as well as the arguments I formulate, knowing full well that as for now all of us see through a glass dimly and none of us has perfect knowledge. Our salvation remains by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and all for the glory of God alone; not by some neo-Gnostic idea of salvation by perfect knowledge, or by some inner experience through a personal revelation, as many seem to assert these days. But, as salvation has always been, it comes to us externally, accomplished by the historical and objective finished work of the God-man Jesus Christ, who alone is worthy of our praise and worship. It is finished, said our Lord. The rest is mere out-workings of how that finished work of redemption is applied. Let us begin by addressing the common arguments dispensationalists use against covenant theologians.
Argument #1: Covenant Theology is “Replacement” Theology
This is by far the biggest charge levied at CT. It has unfortunately nearly gotten to the point in premillennial circles where this terminology is basically an assumption, or a given. What they mean by this is simple: they accuse covenanters of holding to the belief that the Gentile church has “replaced” Israel (the ethnic Jews) as God’s chosen people. And sadly, when I have tried to explain that this is not what covenanters believe, they insist that we do. Evidently they know what we believe better than we do.
The problem is, as any Covenant Theologian will tell you, this is an unfounded accusation, and is certainly not what Covenant Theology teaches. What CT teaches is much better described as “expansion” theology as opposed to “replacement” theology. CT teaches that there has always been one people of God, called the elect, who are comprised of Jew, Gentile, and every other nationality and race imaginable. In Old Testament this was comprised mostly ethnic Jews, but even then, there were Gentiles grafted in (Rahab and Ruth, for example). Upon the coming of the messiah, who is Jesus Christ, the covenants are fulfilled and the New Covenant inaugurated. The key to this stance is to identify who the heirs of the promise given to Abraham are. Per Paul, who was the apostle to the Gentiles, the heirs of the promise are those in Christ. (Gal 3:16, 29)
Paul as well gives us one particular discourse that proves there are more than one Israel. In Romans 9:6 he makes the statement: “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel.” This verse alone shows that it is not ethnic descent that makes one a member of the Israel of God, or the “Spiritual” Israel. He then argues further: “and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but through Isaac shall your offspring be named. This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” (Rom 9:7-8 ESV) Paul then argues further that God has been electing whom He will to salvation, even within national Israel, as Paul uses examples from Israel’s history. (Rom 9:9-23) Then the all important statement: “even us whom He has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?” (Rom 9:24) Thus, God has elected His people from ethnic Israel as well as from the Gentiles, as He has always done.
Thus, the heirs of the promise given to Abraham are those of the same faith as Abraham, whether they be Jewish or Gentile, not the ethnic Jews, who are children according to the flesh. Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles is very clear in this regard. (See Rom 9:6-29, Gal 3:15-29, Gal 4:21-31, Eph 2:11-3:6)
Argument #2: Covenanters don’t interpret Scripture literally.
This argument is sloppy at best, especially in light of the New Testament. The dispensational hermeneutic insists that Old Testament prophecy is the determinant of interpreting New Testament prophetic data. On the other hand, Covenant Theology sees the data in the New Testament as the determinative category by which Old Testament prophecy and future eschatology is to be interpreted. This of course leaves dispensationalists and their supposed literal interpretation in some pretty awkward spots by insisting on an Old Testament literal interpretation of a passage that has been reinterpreted by an apostle in light of the messianic age that has dawned in Jesus Christ.
This is how Covenant Theologians interpret prophecy: According to Floyd Hamilton, “In fact a good working rule to follow is that the literal interpretation of the prophecy is to be accepted a) unless the passages contain obviously figurative language, or b) unless the New Testament gives authority for interpreting them in other than a literal sense, or c) unless a literal interpretation would produce a contradiction with truths, principles, or factual statements contained in non-symbolic books of the New Testament. Another obvious rule to be followed is that the clearest New Testament passages in non-symbolic books are to be the norm for the interpretation of prophecy, rather than obscure or partial revelations contained in the Old Testament. In other words we should accept the clear and plain parts of Scripture as a basis for getting the true meaning of the more difficult parts of Scripture.”1
Charles Ryrie expresses the dispensational hermeneutic: “Dispensationalists claim that their principle of hermeneutics is that of literal interpretation…The prophecies in the Old Testament concerning the first coming of Christ - His birth, His rearing, His ministry, His death, His resurrection - were all fulfilled literally. There is no non-literal fulfillment of these prophecies in the New Testament…The dispensationalist claims to use the normal principle of interpretation consistently in all his study of the Bible.”2
The two methods of interpretation are certainly not the same, but they are not so different as to end up with different Gospels or anything like that. So how do literalist dispensationalists approach certain texts? Well, always literally, of course. However, this, in my opinion, presents some massive problems with numerous Biblical texts. A few examples might suffice.
Daniel 9:24-27 has been called the lynchpin passage of dispensationalism by different dispensationalists. This passage is the famous “seventy weeks” prophecy made by Daniel. But the dispensational interpretation of this crucial passage is non-literal! I repeat, the self-professed literal hermeneutic of dispensationalists is thrown out the door in a passage they view as the key that unlocks the book of Revelation. (once again interpreting the NT in light of the OT, instead of the NT unlocking the OT) How do they interpret it non-literally? Simple: They insert a 2000+ year gap between the 69th and 70th weeks of Daniel that is never mentioned or implied in the passage. How is that a literal interpretation?
Another example is from the book of Acts. In Acts 15, the apostles were faced with the question of: should Gentile converts be circumcised in order to be saved? Paul and Barnabas reported that God was doing great things among the Gentiles (15:4). Certain Pharisees who had become believers stood up and said that they should be circumcised. (15:5) Peter then refuted the Pharisees arguments, culminating his refutation in 15:11 by saying: “But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” Then James stood up and spoke, saying: “God first visited the Gentiles to take from them a people for His name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,…” And then he cited a passage from Amos 9:11-12: “After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.” (15:16-18) James saw this prophecy as fulfilled by Christ’s resurrection, and the reconstruction of His disciples as the true Israel. The presence of off Jewish Christians as well as Gentile Christians in the church was evidence to James that the prophecy of Amos had been fulfilled. The fallen tent of David had been rebuilt by Jesus Christ.
Was James “spiritualizing” an Old Testament prophecy by applying it to the church? Or was James simply reading the OT and this prophecy through a Christocentric lens?
The Scofield Reference Bible (C.I. Scofield - a famous dispensationalist) claims that this speech given by James is the most important in the NT. According to Scofield, James is describing what will happen after the conclusion of the church age - in the millennial kingdom thousands of years future to James and the other disciples, when God re-establishes a Davidic rule over Israel. If this is the truth, when Paul and Barnabas looked for advice on what to do for an issue that they were dealing with then, James replied with an answer thousands of years in the future. As Kim Riddlebarger points out, “Here is one instance in which dispensational presuppositions get in the way of the plain sense of the text. Scofield interprets the text literalistically, not literally.”3 And as he also points out, “The dispensationalists literalistic reading of prophetic passages must not be confused with a literal reading. A literal reading - a reading that gets at the plain sense of the text - will allow the New Testament to interpret the Old. It is amillenarians, not dispensationalists, who interpret prophecy literally in that they follow the literal sense of how the writers of the New Testament interpret Old Testament prophecy”4
So, we see that the dispensational accusation made against covenant theologians is unfounded. And as we see in the church today, specifically the American church, many Christians have rejected amillennialism because they have been fed propaganda that claims amillennarians interpret prophecy “spiritually” or “non-literally,” the most grievous of sins to the ardent dispensationalist. Hal Lindsey has even went as far as to label the amillennial view of eschatology as “demonic and heretical” and the “root of anti-Semitism.”5 And as Riddlebarger notes again, this is quite a lamentable situation, especially considering the majority of mainline Orthodox Christian theologians have been amillennial or something close to it. Namely, great theologians of the past such as Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin, which of course does not prove amillennialism to be the correct view, but it is a powerful point worth noting, and shows that amillennialism has been the historic majority orthodox Christian report regarding the millennium. Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin were anything but theological liberals. Likewise today, theologians like Anthony Hoekema, Michael Horton, Kim Riddlebarger, and Herman Hoeksema are not theological liberals, yet all hold (or held to) to the amillennial position.
Now that I have laid some groundwork regarding the nature of the debate, and even chucked my hat into the ring in favor of the amillennial viewpoint regarding eschatology, the rest of this blog will focus on why I do not hold to premillennialism. I will then go on and write a brief defense of the amillennial position (as opposed to the postmillennial position, of which there are a few different types) as I will point out the Biblical inconsistencies and problems with the premillennial view (both dispensational and historic). In effect, my argument is going to center on why the thousand years spoken of in Revelation 20 is not a future earthly rule by Christ from the Jerusalem (whether the nature of the millennium be Jewish, as in dispensationalist, or Christian, as in Historic premillennialism), but is a present reality as Jesus Christ rules from heaven right now. My goal here is certainly not to be divisive, as this is clearly an “in-house” discussion. Numerous stellar bible teachers now and in the past have been premillennialists. To name a few: James Montgomery Boice was historic premillennial, as was George Eldon Ladd, perhaps the best defender of the historic premillennial view to date. It has been argued that the Prince of Preachers, Charles Haddon Spurgeon was historic premillennial, although I am uncertain that Spurgeon ever took a definite stance on the issue. Not to mention the many Godly dispensationalist teachers of the day; John MacArthur, for example.
In another note, the term amillennialism is unfortunate. The prefix “a” means “no.” Thus, amillennialism means “no millennium.” This is unfortunate because this is not what amillennialism teaches, and surely not what I or other amillennialists believe. A better term, as Anthony Hoekema has suggested, is “realized millennium,”6 as we believe the millennial reign is a symbolic time period (1000 years) that refers to the entire age between Jesus Christ’s first and second advents. Thus, the “thousand years” of Revelation 20 is a symbolic number for now, as Christ presently reigns from heaven and sits on the throne. However, I will stick to the normal convention and continue to call the viewpoint amillennialism.
Problem #1: The failure of Jesus Christ.
This point can surely be debated from different viewpoints, but I see it as a big problem for all forms of premillennialism. Namely, premillennialism claims that upon the second coming of our Lord, He defeats all his enemies at the battle of Armageddon, the final eschatological battle, spoken of in Revelation 16:16 as well as 19:11-21. Premillennialists hold that although Christ returns at His Parousia (2nd coming) and obliterates His enemies, He must do it again another time, spoken of in Revelation 20:7-10, at the conclusion of the thousand year millennial reign. The problem here -and it is a big one- is why didn’t Christ finish the job correctly and in its entirety the first time at His Parousia? If premillennialism is true, either Christ failed to finish the job completely or He never intended to finish the job completely. But this is in contrast to what Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:23-28. Paul gives us a timeline of sorts.
1. Christ’s resurrection. “Christ the first fruits, then at His coming those who belong to Christ.” (15:23)
2. “Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father…” (15:24a)
3. “…after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For He must reign until he has put all His enemies under His feet.” (15:24b-25)
4. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For God has put all things in subjection under His feet…” (15:26-27a)
Where is the millennial kingdom here? Where is the rapture? On the contrary, the apostle Paul says that Christ is ruling now, since His resurrection, and He will return again, and that is the end, when He delivers the kingdom (which is now) to the Father (at the 2nd coming).
Problem #2: That’s just bizarre!
What do I mean by this? Simply put, according to premillennialists, Christ will physically reign from Earth in an Earthly kingdom from the Davidic throne in Jerusalem, along with resurrected and glorified saints, who are in bodies that are not sinful, cannot sin at all, and cannot die, since Christ has already defeated death by His resurrection and His subsequent second coming. All premillennialists would hold to this idea in some form. Some may say that only the martyrs will reign with Christ and others may say that it is the Jewish believers who will reign, as to fulfill the land promise made to Abraham. But here is the problem: not only are there resurrected and glorified saints ruling with Christ, who sits on an Earthly throne in Jerusalem, but there are also natural people coexisting with them, in natural bodies, who do sin, are depraved as humanity is now, and who die. Can you imagine that? What if you are a glorified saint in the millennial kingdom and your neighbor is a natural human? The idea itself is plain goofy, in my feeble mind at least. Premillennialists answer this charge by claiming that there will be people of God who are saved during the end times that survive the 2nd coming and are ushered into the millennium. They will then have offspring and so on and so forth. But this idea completely disregards the tension in the New Testament between “this age” and the “age to come.” The age to come spoken of in Scripture is not some intermediate partially consummated millennial kingdom that occurs after the 2nd coming of Christ, but rather, the eternal state.
The “two-age model” is helpful in showing this. It was the basic eschatological premise put forth by both our Lord as well as the apostle Paul. This age is defined by the following traits:
Matt 12:32: There is no forgiveness for blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.
Matt 24:3: The end of the age will be preceded by signs.
Matt 28:20: Christ will be with us until the end of the age.
Mark 10:30: The present age is the age of homes, fields, and families.
Luke 18:30: Material rewards are given to us in this life.
Luke 20:34: The people of this age marry and are given in marriage.
Rom 12:2: We are not to be conformed to the pattern of this age.
1 Cor 1:20: Philosophy is the wisdom of this age.
1 Cor 2:6-8: Wisdom and rulers are of this age.
2 Cor 4:4: Satan, the god of this age, blinds peoples minds to the truth.
Gal 1:4: The present age is evil.
Eph 1:20-21: Christ reigns in this present age.
Eph 2:2: The ways of this age are evil.
1 Tim 6:17: Those who are rich in this age are not to hope in their wealth for the next.
Tit 2:12: We are to live Godly lives in this age.
The age to come is defined by the following traits:
Matt 12:32: There is no forgiveness against blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.
Matt 13:40: The weeds will be thrown into the fire.
Mark 10:30: Eternal life is a reward.
Luke 18:30: Eternal life is a reward.
Luke 20:35: There will be no marriages or giving in marriage.
1 Cor 6:9-10: Evildoers will not inherit the kingdom of God.
1 Cor 15:50: Flesh and blood will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Gal 5:21: Those who live evil lives will not inherit the kingdom.
Eph 1:21: Christ will reign in the age to come.
Eph 5:5: Immoral people will not inherit the kingdom of God.
1 Thess 2:12: We are encouraged to live lives worthy of the kingdom.
2 Thess 1:5: Our faith will make us worthy of the kingdom of God.
1 Tim 6:19: The coming age has life that is truly life.
2 Tim 4:18: The Lord will bring us to the kingdom of God.
And the line between the two ages is clearly set forth:
Matt 13:39: The harvest is the end of the age, and angels are the harvesters.
Matt 13:40: The weeds will be burned in the fire at the end of the age.
Matt 13:49: The angels will separate the wicked from the righteous.
Thus, the event that separates this age from the age to come is the 2nd coming of Christ. This age is full of earthly and temporal qualities, but the age to come is full of eternal qualities. This model used quite clearly by Jesus and Paul eliminates the possibility of a millennial kingdom post-2nd coming.
Problem #3: How anti-climactic!
What I mean by this is quite simple really, and I will keep this one quite short. In short, it has got to be anti-climactic in a sense for the glorified saints. These elect people have died and went to be with the Lord. Now, they are in glory with God Himself. There is no sin, no pain, no death. But then, Jesus brings them back to Earth to rule with Him in the millennial kingdom, in the presence of sinners in natural bodies. Granted, doing anything with our Lord is a blessing, yet this would still seem odd: from a place of perfection to a place of semi-perfection. It seems a step back to me.
Problem #4: Evil in a post-2nd coming millennial kingdom?
This problem is an enormous one. Premillennialists of all varieties must deal with the problem of evil in the millennium. Namely, it is clear from Revelation 20 that there is a huge eschatological battle that takes place at the conclusion of the thousand years.
John writes: “And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” -Rev 20:7-10 (ESV)
And this of course, is followed by the judgment, depicted in Revelation 20:11-15. This problem for premillennialism cannot be understated. Premillennialists must be able to define where all this evil came from. They only have three options.
1. The glorified saints rebel against the sitting Christ in Jerusalem, so much that their number is “like the sand of the sea.” This is of course, unthinkable. This would require a second fall of man that is even more severe than the original fall that happened in the garden, for this one would require saints who are in glorified bodies to fall and rebel against Christ, who brought them back to rule with Him. Premillennialists do not usually hold to this idea. Even for them, this is absurd. Or at least, it should be.
2. The glorified saints have offspring that are born in natural bodies who then never are united to Christ by faith, at least, many generations down the road at the end of the millennium, who then, in the presence of Jesus Christ Himself, as well as the saints ruling with Him, who are their parents, rebel against the Lord. Of course, this scenario makes as little sense as the first one, as Luke 20:35 tells us there will be no marriages or giving in marriage in the age to come. And if the glorified saints are producing offspring outside of marriage, they are living in sin anyways, which is something a glorified saint is unable to do. Thus, this scenario is as implausible as the first, as the glorified saints won’t be producing any natural offspring.
3. There will be natural people who go through the tribulation, survive Armageddon, and are ushered into the millennial kingdom in natural bodies, as they never died naturally while on earth. These people will then go on living normal lives, albeit under an earth that has had the curse lifted (at least mostly), and they will have offspring and re-populate the earth. It is the offspring of the natural saints who enter the millennium that are never united to Christ by faith and are the rebels of the millennial kingdom. The actual folks who enter the millennium in natural bodies will not be the rebels, because they are Christians who came out of the tribulation without dying. But their children will be born and not all of them will become God’s elect, and will thus rebel. So much so that their number is like the sand of the sea. This is the scenario that premillennialists generally assert.
Yet the problem of evil in a kingdom ruled by Christ bodily from Jerusalem and with saints who are glorified is too big of a stretch for this Christian to overcome. The problem still persists. The question remains: Who are these people organized by Satan and then consumed by fire from heaven? According to Riddlebarger, “On the one hand, dispensationalists believe that these are individuals who come to faith after the rapture and survive the great tribulation and the wrath of the antichrist. On the other, historic premillenarians believe that these are people living at the time of our Lord’s return who are not raised from the dead or judged and who subsequently repopulate the earth during the millennial age.”7
This is too big of a stretch and too big of a hurdle to jump. Premillennialism creates more theological problems than it answers. Scripture never teaches such a scenario with resurrected saints living alongside natural bodies in the flesh. The NT writers never anticipated such a scenario. Rather, they looked forward to the final consummation occurring at the time of our Lord’s Parousia, not a halfway fulfillment of an earthly theocratic millennium ruled by Jesus Christ as another step before the final consummation of the eternal state.
Problem #5: How do they escape the judgment?
Premillennialists insist that there will be natural bodies in the flesh who enter the millennial kingdom and live right alongside Christ and his resurrected saints. But the rest of the authors of the NT tell us that the judgment occurs when Christ returns, not after a thousand years of Him ruling from Jerusalem. Riddlebarger notes, “The Scriptures are very clear that Christ returns to judge the world, raise the dead, and renew the cosmos. According to Paul, dead believers are raised at Christ’s coming. Living believers are caught up to meet the Lord in the air. This includes all believers, whether living or dead (1 Thess 4:15-17). But those who are not Christ’s, we are told, will face His wrath and will be taken to face final judgment (Matt 24:37-41). This includes all unbelievers living at the time of our Lord’s return.”8
Thus, premillennialism in all forms has no good answer as to the identity of the people living on earth during the millennium after the Parousia of Christ. It becomes an even bigger problem when we quote our Lord Himself in Luke 20:34-38, and the apostle Paul, when he states quite clearly that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” (1 Cor 15:50) These two statements alone rule out a millennial kingdom after the Parousia. This age has clearly passed away. The temporal age is gone and the eternal has come. Instead, premillennialism must argue for a 1000 year gap between Christ’s coming and the final judgment, which they must claim is simply not stated by Jesus or Paul. But is this so? It seems pretty clear to me that the judgment occurs at the return of Christ.
An exegetical analysis of Revelation 20:1-10
I have thus far framed the debate between dispensationalists and covenant theologians and then went on to show the implausibility of premillennialism in all of its forms. It is therefore only right that I provide an exegetical analysis of the key millennial passage; Revelation 20:1-10. I will attempt to show in this analysis that the text in Revelation 20:1-10 much better describes this age as Christ rules from heaven than it does a future millennial golden age. As I do so, I rely heavily on the stellar work of Kim Riddlebarger, whose book A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times I have read multiple times and poured over, with Scriptures in hand. I am convinced Riddlebarger’s position does great justice to the whole counsel of God regarding the topic of eschatology.
The text states:
Revelation 20:1-10 (ESV): Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while. 4then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and who had not worshipped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. 6Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with Him for a thousand years.
7And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison 8and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. 9And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of thee saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, 10and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
So that is the only text in Scripture where it actually speaks of a millennial age; there is no other. In line with their professed literal hermeneutic, dispensationalists are consistent. John Walvoord is normative when he says that the symbolism and the numbers in Revelation 20 are to be “interpreted according to their natural meaning unless the context clearly indicates otherwise”9 and that when John states that Satan is bound with a chain he means “a literal chain” and Satan is “literally physically restrained.”
At stake in this debate are all sorts of questions to be answered. First of all, do the events of Revelation 19, which clearly depict the Parousia of our Lord, precede the events of Revelation 20 in a temporal manner? If so, this is a very strong argument in favor of premillennialism, or at least, in favor of either premillennialism or some forms of postmillennialism. Although, it is important to point out that postmillennialists do not think Revelation 19 depicts the 2nd coming, but is symbolic rather of the triumph of the Gospel throughout the church age.
While premillennialism and postmillennialism have the events of Revelation 19 preceding the events of Revelation 20, amillennialists do not. Amillennialism argues for a recapitulation; namely that the events of Revelation 20 take place during the same temporal time period as the events in Revelation 19. Thus, when Christ’s 2nd coming is depicted in Revelation 19, it is depicted again from a different angle in Revelation 20.
The nature of the book of Revelation is apocalyptic. That is, it is hidden and is an unveiling using highly symbolic and figurative language. Kim Riddlebarger comments that, “Revelation is a book much like Ezekiel, Daniel, or Zechariah, combining distinct and unique biblical genres for the purpose of explaining redemptive history from God’s perspective. In a sense, Revelation is a New Testament commentary on those redemptive-historical themes left open-ended by the Old Testament prophets, viewed in the greater light of post messianic revelation.”10
The important thing to note regarding the book of Revelation is that we must realize that the author (the apostle John) used highly symbolic language and that he did not intend for us to take them literally. Much of the language he uses is symbolic of language used in the Old Testament. The key is to determine the symbols he is using, which, in our 21st century American society, is easier said than done in many cases. But to the first and second century Jewish believer, it is quite probable that they would have understood the symbolism quite easily, drawing off of their knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures.
Thus, when we get to Revelation 20, we see all sorts of symbolic language, such as dragon, serpent, and bottomless pit. The passage of Revelation 20 becomes quite problematic and indeed at odds with much else in Scripture if we take it strictly literally. For instance, Satan is a spirit being, how can he be physically bound with a chain? The passage obviously refers to something (which we will get to), but in any case, I don’t think it is biblically honest to say that he is literally and physically bound with a literal chain. Riddlebarger comments again, “When John said two times in this section, ‘I saw’, which he used throughout the book to indicate symbolic visions (Rev 4:1, 10:1-3, 13:1-3, 14:1, 17:1-3), we should realize that what follows cannot be collapsed into linguistic and referential levels. (strict literalism) The image of an angel with a chain and key points to something beyond the referential level, to other biblical-theological themes elsewhere in Scripture.”11
His point is that when John clearly indicates to us he is recording an apocalyptic vision, the language is figurative and symbolic, and is not to be interpreted strictly literally. In other words, the images John records and words he uses stand for something, but do not stand for the exact literal meaning of the word. Dispensationalists have an admirable and noble goal. They’ve (haven’t we all?) seen theological liberals butcher clear non-symbolic texts and make them say what they want, essentially turning Scripture into a big book of relativism and open-ended opinion. And they should be commended for pointing that out. But in the case of symbolic apocalyptic literature, this is an overreaction and ends up getting the text wrong and interpreting the apocalyptic visions to mean something altogether different than they actually do. In other words, we need to literally get it right!
It is the contention of the amillennialist that the visions in Revelation are not organized in a chronological fashion. This is easily shown to be true simply by pointing to the final eschatological battle that occurs in numerous places in the book. Therefore, if they are not arranged chronologically, they are arranged topically. In other words, the book off Revelation recapitulates itself, giving us different viewpoints of the same time period and describing different events in symbolic language. We cannot read the book of Revelation through the lens of chronology. The book becomes a mess if we make the faulty assumption that the events that occur in earlier chapters therefore occur temporally earlier in history than the events that occur in later chapters.
But, can we show this beyond a shadow of a doubt? I think so. As William Hendricksen points out, “A careful study of chapter 20 will reveal that this chapter describes a period which is synchronous with that of chapter 12.”12
Let’s look at the chapters in question.
Revelation 12:7-12 (ESV): Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, 8but he was defeated and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world - he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. 10And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, ‘Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. 12Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows his time is short!
Look familiar? It should, it’s really close to Revelation 20:1-6. Here it is again:
Revelation 20:1-6 (ESV):
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while. 4then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and who had not worshipped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. 6Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with Him for a thousand years.
This parallelism is extremely important, if it is true. For one, it clearly places the events of Revelation 20 in this age, not the age to come. If this parallelism can be sustained, it deals a serious blow to premillennialism in all forms. Let us examine the evidence:
Rev 12:7: Heavenly scene. Rev 20:1: Heavenly scene.
Rev 12:7-8: Angelic battle against Satan and his host. Rev 20:2: Presupposed angelic battle with Satan
Rev 12:9: Satan cast to earth. Rev 20:3: Satan cast into the bottomless pit.
Rev 12:9: The angels’ opponent called “the great dragon…that ancient serpent called the devil or Satan, who leads the whole world astray.” Rev 20:2, 7-8: The angels’ opponent called “the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan…restrained from deceiving the nations any longer…and the released to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth.”
Rev 12:12: Satan is full of wrath, because he knows his time is short. Rev 20:3: Satan to be ‘set free for a short time’ after his imprisonment.
Rev 12:10: Satan’s fall, resulting in the kingdom of Christ and His saints. Rev 20:4: Satan’s fall, resulting in the kingdom of Christ and his saints.
Rev 12:11: The saints kingship, based not only on the fall of Satan and Christ’s victory but also on the saints faithfulness even to death in holding to the ‘word of their testimony.’ Rev 20:4: The saints kingship, based not only on Satan’s fall but also on their faithfulness even to death because of their ‘testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God.’
It seems quite likely to me that these passages recapitulate. The parallels are much too blatant to be accidental or to be talking about two completely different things and/or eras. Premillennialists defend against this argument by simply denying that the passages are parallel. But is this so? Let the reader decide. Of course, the premillennialist must deny this recapitulation, because if it is true, premillennialism is false. If the recapitulation here is true, premillennialism is dead. It cannot stand in the face of this argument.
The next comparison we can make is between Revelation 19:11-21 and Revelation 20:7-10, which I firmly believe depict the same final eschatological conflict. There is very good reason to believe this too. Let’s examine the text. For sake of space (this bad boy is getting long on me) I’m not going to list the text of Revelation 19:11-21, but will quote from it and cross reference as needed.
There are two very good reasons within the biblical text to support recapitulation from Revelation 19 to Revelation 20. The first is the judgment of the nations spoken of in Revelation 19:14-15 as well as in Revelation 20:3. Revelation 19:14-15 tells us:
Rev 19:14-15 (ESV): And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following Him on white horses. 15From His mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of His fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.
Rev 20:3 (ESV): and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.
Amillennialists must press the question: What nations, that have already been judged, is Satan prevented from deceiving if premilllennialism is true? Didn’t Christ just unleash the wrath of God on them and judge them? In the premillennial interpretation, the nations just have been judged at the second coming and triumph of Christ. Which nations are left for Satan to be prevented from deceiving?
Kim Riddlebarger also comments, “Again, the scope of the problem for those who hold a sequential relationship between Revelation 19 to 20 becomes clear when we examine the role of the nations throughout the book of Revelation. In Revelation 13, we read that the dragon gave the beast authority (v. 2) to rule over every tribe, people, language, and nation (v. 7). The result of this satanic empowering of the beast is that “all the inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast” (v. 8) because they are deceived by the false signs and wonders of his supreme lieutenant, the false prophet. Then in Revelation 16:13-16, we read of how the kings of the whole earth are gathered for battle at Armageddon “on that great day of God Almighty” (v. 14). This is the day, John said, when Jesus returns like a thief in judgment (v. 15).”13
And, “Therefore, when we read in Revelation 19:19, “Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to make war against the rider on the horse and his army,” it is clear who these people are. These are those “who had received the mark of the beast and worshipped his image” (Rev 19:20), I.e. the nations. At this time, we are told, the beast and the false prophet are captured, and the two of them are thrown alive into the “fiery lake of burning sulphur” (v. 20). Indeed, ‘the rest of them were killed with the sword that came out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh” (v. 21). Clearly, Revelation 13, 16, and 19 depict the same event, yet another strong indication of recapitulation in this epistle. What is depicted in Revelation 16 and 19 is judgment day. This is when Jesus Christ returns in wrath to judge the nations, raise the dead, and make all things new.”
This argument is strong. Premillennialists cannot explain why the nations have already been deceived by Satan (Rev 16) and subsequently destroyed and judged by Christ (Rev 19), but then in Revelation 20, the nations need to be protected from satanic deception. What nations? They’ve already been destroyed and judged by Christ. Premillennialism futilely attempts an argument that the nations being protected from satanic deception in Revelation 20:3 are nations that survived the wrath of God and the judgment in Revelation 16 and 19, but this makes no sense. Surely Christ finishes the job the first time, right?
The second strong argument in favor of the amillennial interpretation is the distinct similarities of the battles spoken of in Revelation 19 and 20. The apostle quotes from the same Old Testament prophecy in both Revelation 19 and 20 when talking about the battle. The prophecy is found in Ezekiel 38 and 39, referred to in that prophetic book as the “Gog and Magog” prophecy. In Revelation 19:17-18, John quotes directly from Ezekiel 39:17-20. And again in Revelation 20:7-10, depicting the final eschatological battle again, the apostle refers to them directly as “Gog and Magog,” quoting again from Ezekiel 38 and 39. If John is talking about two separate battles separated by 1000 years, why does he quote from the same Old Testament prophecy? That would indeed, make little sense.
It is highly unlikely that the apostle is talking about two different eschatological battles separated by 1000 years, but rather, that he is giving us different perspectives on the same battle. In Revelation 19, John writes from the perspective of Christ’s judgment on the beast, the false prophet, and the nations, then in chapter 20 the focus is on the judgment of the nations as well as Satan. R. Fowler White comments, “If John expected us to interpret the revolts in Revelation 19 and 20 as different episodes in history, we could hardly expect him to describe them in language and imagery derived from the same episode in Ezekiel’s prophecy.”14 I concur with White. The battles spoken of in Revelation 19:11-21 and 20:7-10 are two angles of the same eschatological battle, the culmination of this age, the final triumph of Christ at His second coming, and the ushering in of the eternal state.
But what does Revelation 20:1-10 mean? Specifically, since I’ve already covered the clear recapitulation of Revelation 20:7-10 with the battles spoken of in Revelation 19:11-21 and Revelation 16, I will focus here on the first six verses of chapter 20. I will offer up an exposition of Revelation 20:1-6, since thus far, most of what I have done is examine what it does not mean.
It is first worthwhile to point out that as we have spoken about earlier, only glorified saints can possibly be on the new earth after the return of Christ. Second, due to the highly symbolic language of John’s apocalyptic vision, it would be unfair of us and to the text if we isolated it from the rest of the New Testament teachings on eschatology. We must take into consideration Jesus’ teaching on the subject as well as other teaching, such as the apostle Paul’s. Thus, we must read the symbolic passage in light of the clear ones. Protestants, and in particular, Reformed Theology, calls this idea the analogia fidei (analogy of faith), an idea dispensationalists generally reject.
According to the teachings of both Jesus Christ and of Paul, the resurrection of both believers and unbelievers occurs at the Parousia of Christ, when he returns to usher in the eternal state. Thankfully, this passage makes a whole lot of sense in the amillennial interpretation and we can easily do justice to it; more justice, I argue, than premillennialism does. According to Riddlebarger, “Amillennial interpreters of Revelation 20 see the passage as the weak link in any form of premillennialism. If the premillennial position is correct, the golden age of the millennium where Christ reigns for one thousand years ends with glorified men and women revolting against the visible rule of Christ when Satan is released from the abyss at the end of that time. By viewing this conception of the future millennial age through the analogy of faith, the idea of a “second fall” at the end of the millennium is so highly problematic that most amillennial interpreters rule out any form of premillennialism a priori. A fall of glorified humanity into sin after Christ’s second advent means that eternity is not safe from the apostasy and the spontaneous eruption of sin in the human heart.”15 Riddlebarger is correct of course. The thought of a second fall of man done by glorified saints is ludicrous. If we are correct in our assumption that only glorified saints can enter the kingdom after the second coming, premillennialism is indeed ruled out completely.
The first section of the chapter is verses 1-3. From the outset, we realize that the language of Revelation 20 is highly symbolic and that as well chapter 20 is not the only place in Revelation where these ideas are spoken of in John’s vision. For instance, Revelation 9:1 says: “And the fifth angel blew his trumpet, and I saw a star fallen from heaven to earth, and he was given the key to the shaft of the bottomless pit.” And the same chapter, verse 11 states: “They have as king over them the angel of the bottomless pit. His name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek he is called Apollyon.” The first question we have to answer is who are the serpent and the angel? Those are easy enough. Well, at least one is. The serpent is obviously Satan. The angel is tougher to figure, although it most likely refers to the archangel Michael, although it could possibly refer to Christ Himself (although to be clear, Christ is not an angel), since in Revelation 1:18, Christ is said to hold the key to Hades. We can also cross reference this to Paul’s discourse on the man of sin in 2 Thessalonians 2, and his talk of the restrainer, who is never mentioned by name. This of course is just an opinion, but I do not think the identity of the angel in the first verses of chapter 20 is a reference to Christ but rather to Michael the archangel. Or it could certainly be another angel who is unnamed. That being said, the precise identity of the angel will not effect our interpretation of the passage.
That being said, we could go back and forth on the identity of the angel, but the true issue at hand is the action taken by the angel in verses 2-3 of chapter 20 and the term “thousand years,” which is used repeatedly throughout the section. Dispensationalists, faithful to their literal interpretation, contend that the angel has a literal chain and literally physically restrains Satan for a literal 1000 years. I don’t think, however, it is that simple in light of the rest of the book of Revelation and the rest of New Testament eschatology. Historic premillennialists, postmillennialists, and amillennialists all are open to the idea of the thousand years being a symbolic term for a long period of time, or a time of completion. Obviously, in amillennialism, this has to be the case. Amillennialists see the thousand years as a symbolic number of completion, representative of the entire church era from the resurrection of Christ to His Parousia. There are excellent reasons to believe the number is symbolic too. The immediate context of Revelation 20 is extremely symbolic. It is an apocalyptic vision and everything else in the section is highly symbolic. Look at the terminology John uses: beast, dragon, serpent, bottomless pit, etc.
The thousand years is said to begin with the binding of Satan. But what does this binding refer to? Obviously, if the binding of Satan refers to his complete removal from the earth, it certainly cannot refer to the present age, as I am arguing, and thus amillennialism would fail. But there is a better explanation to this and it is supported by Jesus Himself. We need to understand clearly what is meant by the binding of Satan. It does not refer to his complete removal from the earth, as that will not happen until he is cast into the lake of fire. Amillennialists must be able to show that in some way Satan was bound upon the resurrection of Christ, since that is when the thousand years began according to amillennialism. Is there evidence in Scripture for this? Indeed there is. According to Revelation 20:3, the binding of Satan is something that is very specific. John writes, “…so that he might not deceive the nations any longer…” What this means, according to Riddlebarger, is that, “after the coming of the long-expected Messiah, Satan lost certain authority which he possessed prior to the life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of the Savior. It does not mean that all satanic operations cease during the millennial age as many opponents of amillennialism mistakenly assume. The binding of Satan simply means that Satan cannot deceive the nations until he is released at the end of the millennial age.”16 But, we surely need to find more evidence than this. If this is the only place Scripture talks about Satan being bound, the argument put forth is quite weak. Thankfully, there is more evidence. Revelation 9:1-11 depicts an angel releasing demonic forces to deceive the nations of the earth. Likewise, Riddlebarger argues, “if Christ takes authority over this realm through his own death and resurrection as stated in Revelation 1:18, then the binding of Satan is a direct result of Christ’s resurrection.”17 This argument comes down to this: If Satan is presently bound, it simply means that he is unable to rally the nations together as one against the saints. Indeed, he has never been able to do this since the resurrection of Christ. On the other hand, in the Old Testament, he was allowed by God to do this repeatedly. Look at Israel’s history. We can also find evidence in the gospels that this is the case. We are told in Matthew 16:18 that the gates of hell will not prevail against Christ’s church. But there is more. Matthew 12:29 states: “Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house.” Jesus himself talked about binding Satan through His death and resurrection. Paul agreed in Colossians 2:15: “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.” And likewise, the book of Hebrews proclaims that Satan’s power has been weakened in Hebrews 2:14: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death He might destroy the one who has the power over death, that is, the devil.” 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12 discusses this as well. To put it simply, Satan being bound does not mean that he is completely inactive. He obviously is. Nevertheless, he is incapable of rallying the nations together on a world-wide scale to make war against the saints of God, until the very end.
As Riddlebarger puts it, “but however we understand the binding of Satan, we need to be faithful to two distinct but complementary lines of biblical data. The first line emphasizes a decisive defeat of Satan by Jesus Christ binding him, in effect, and preventing him from deceiving the nations. This defeat at the cross and empty tomb guarantees his eventual and final end…The second line of biblical data is that Satan still rages against Christ and His kingdom in this age in some limited but nevertheless sinister fashion.”18
The amillennial interpretation is however, able to make the most sense of Satan’s release after the thousand years is ended. In light of Paul’s discourse on the man of lawlessness in 2 Thessalonians 2. Riddlebarger comments, “Once the divine restraint is lifted, the lawless one suddenly appears, accompanied with lying signs and wonders (2 Thess 2:1-12). The release of Satan at the end of the millennial age is itself a strong argument in favor of the amillennial interpretation of Revelation 20:1-3. The binding of Satan for a thousand years and his subsequent release surely belongs to the present age and not to that period after Christ returns to judge all men, raise the dead, and make all things new.”19
The final section of Scripture we need to analyze is the next section of Revelation 20, namely, verses 4-6. The scene, as can be seen (no pun intended), shifts from an emphasis on Satan and his being bound to heaven, and the rule of the saints. Not surprisingly, dispensationalists see this scene as happening on earth. (cf. Rev 5:10) However, we need to analyze the passage further. The scene takes place at the location of the thrones, for John writes: “Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed…” The answer should be obvious from the rest of the book of Revelation: the thrones are in heaven. Revelation 1:4 reads: “…Grace to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne.” Revelation 3:21 says: “The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne…” Revelation 4:2 reads: “At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven…” Dispensationalists mistakenly associated Revelation 5:10, which reads: “and you made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth” with a future millennial kingdom. However, there is better evidence in the book of Revelation that the passage in question refers not to a future millennial kingdom, but rather to the new earth. The throne of God is located in heaven, not on the earth. Riddllebarger notes, “There can be little doubt that the portrayal of beings sitting on thrones is not intended to express the literal idea of people sitting on actual pieces of furniture and ruling from there. This is, rather, a figurative way of saying that they reign over a kingdom.”20
Thus, the questions we must answer are: Riddlebarger says, “Who are these people? And what kind of judgment do they exercise?”21 These people are mentioned numerous times in the book of Revelation. Directly in chapter 20, they are said to not have worshipped the beast or his image. However, it probably includes the ones mentioned in chapter 6 verse 9 as well, who are described as “the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” And as well, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” (Rev 14:13) What is also of utmost importance here is to take heed of where the reign is taking place. That is, the place where the souls of the martyrs are. This is undoubtedly in heaven, which is clearly contrasted to the bottomless pit in verses 1-3. Likewise, we need to leap forward to the eternal state, when body and soul are reunited. Once this happens, they are said to reign forever and ever (Rev 22:5). This rules out a millennial kingdom. Of course the premillennial argument is that the millennial kingdom merges into the eternal state. But where is the evidence for this in Scripture?
However, the most important part of Revelation 20:4-6 is the nature of the first resurrection. Premillennialists insist this is a bodily resurrection. I don’t think it is. There is evidence internally in Scripture that this first resurrection refers not to a bodily resurrection, but to another resurrection. George Eldon Ladd, noted historic premillennialist, offers up a strong argument in favor of premillennialism, when he notes: “This is the most important word in the entire passage. The exegete must decide whether or not it means resurrection; and upon this decision will be determined how he interprets the entire passage.”22 Ladd is quite right. The first resurrection is the hinge on which the passage turns from either being a support of amillennialism or premillennialism. According to Ladd, his argument goes as follows: There are two resurrections mentioned here, and one of them is obviously bodily, therefore resurrections must always be bodily. Famous premillennialist Henry Alford forces the discussion in this direction: “If, in a passage where two resurrections are mentioned, where certain (psychai ezesan) at the first, and the rest of the (nekroi ezesan) only at the end of a specified period after the first, if in such a passage the first resurrection may be understood to mean spiritual rising with Christ, while the second means literal rising from the grave; then there is an end to all significance in language, and Scripture is wiped out as a definite testimony to any thing.”23 Alford here is essentially arguing that since the passage mentions two resurrections, they must mean the exact same thing (bodily, he argues) or else words mean nothing, and we completely wipe out the testimony of Scripture and we might as well make the whole Bible say what we want it to. This is a serious charge, and one that must be looked at and dealt with accordingly. But is this the case? In order to determine this, we must look more at the passage as to how the first resurrection is described.
Amillennialism looks a bit deeper into the passage. First, we recognize that the scene in Revelation 20:4-6 takes place in heaven during the present age. Thus, the first resurrection mentioned by the apostle must be something that occurs before the general bodily resurrection of everyone at the Parousia of Christ. Thus, the resurrection cannot be bodily. Amillennialists have interpreted this first resurrection in two ways. The first way is that it refers to the believers regeneration from life to death that happens temporally when a child of God becomes born again. The second way it is interpreted is that it refers to the believer’s death, when they subsequently are taken to be with the Lord. There have been some giants of Reformed Theology on both sides of this issue. I believe it refers to the regeneration of the believer. My reasoning is twofold. First, John makes a connection between the first resurrection and the second death, which is clearly a reference to eternal condemnation or hell. John says: “Over such the second death has no power…” Over who does the second death have no power? Christians, of course. Once we are born again, hell has no power over us. The second reason is found embedded in John’s gospel. Jesus states in John 5:24-25: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes Him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” Thus, Jesus Christ Himself associates regeneration with passing from death to life. What can this be but a type of resurrection?
Another factor to consider is the Greek word used for “first” in the phrase “first resurrection.” Premillennialists insist the word is sequential; that is, it refers to the first of the same type of resurrection. Thus, they end up with two bodily resurrections. However, evidence from Revelation itself shows the word used here (Gk: protos) most likely refers to the first type, as opposed to the second type. (second resurrection) John uses the same word again in Revelation 21:1, when he says: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.” Obviously here, John uses the term protos in reference to two differing types of heavens and earths. The first (the present one) and the new creation at the consummation. Riddlebarger notes, “Further illumination of this point is to be found when we consider John’s use of the term second in Revelation 21, which functions in a sense as an alternate tern for ‘new’ in the same chapter. It is the ‘second death’ of verse 8, which is identified with the fiery lake of burning sulphur and is the opposite of the death that belongs to the order of ‘first things’ depicted in verse 4, namely, that which results in the first resurrection. Therefore, the words second and new serve as antithesis of the first (protos)…Clearly, then, the terms do not indicate sequence but contrast.”24
If this is true, and I think Riddlebarger is on the right track, the difficulties for premillennialism grow even bigger, because it indicates a difference in type of resurrection in Revelation 20, not in sequence.
Likewise, we also must recognize that even the strict literalist premillennarians are forced to “spiritualize” a term in Revelation 20. The term is the “second death.” If they insist that the first and second resurrections are both bodily, and the terms used by the apostle for “first” and ‘second” are sequential terms, then they also must insist that the “first death” and the “second death” refer to two types of the exact same type of death. Granted, the term “first death” does not appear in the passage, but can easily be implied in verse 4, when it says: “Also I saw the souls of them that had been beheaded…” Clearly, physical death is the first death and can be garnered easily from this statement when John says he saw the souls of martyred saints. Therefore, using the sequential logic, the second death must be the same type of death, a physical death. Yet, this is not the case, as the second death in question here is a clear reference to eternal condemnation. Thus, premillennialists are forced to “spiritualize” the second death, much to their chagrin, and contrary to their professed literal reading.
$64,000 Question: Why aren’t more Christians amillennial in their eschatology?
It should be quite clear from Scripture that the case for an amillennial eschatology is very strong indeed. Not only does Scripture itself support it strongly, but there have been many giants of Christian theology past and present who hold to the amillennial viewpoint. Thus, we should be able to conclude that amillennialism is a majority report in Christianity. Indeed, it used to be. Amillennialism has been the majority report in Christianity at least since the time of St. Augustiine, and the view was around far before he systematized it. Even famous premillennialist Justin Martyr (2nd century A.D.) said that many who hold to the pure and pious faith think otherwise (not premillennial). But even though amillennialism has been the majority position of orthodox Christianity for centuries, we find that now days, it is not. I think there are numerous good reasons as to why this is so.
1. Conservative evangelicalism has overreacted to theological liberalism.
I think this one is obvious. Theological liberalism in many cases seeks to interpret pretty much anything in Scripture symbolically, leading to a Bible that can be interpreted however the individual sees fit. It also in many cases leads to a direct denial of Scripture’s inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility, essentially reducing the covenant canon of Scripture to a bunch of nice stories, that are uninspired, written by men that record their stories about their personal experience with God. This is a very Gnostic tendency as well, but that’s a whole other topic. Thus, the reaction by conservative evangelicalism has been interpret everything strictly literally, especially in Fundamentalism. Amillennialism (Covenant Theology particularly) therefore, is seen as “spiritualizing the Bible,” the most egregious interpretive sin imaginable to many conservative evangelicals, especially dispensationalists.
The expressed reaction by conservative evangelicals is a noble one; theological liberalism has no place in Christian orthodoxy. Yet, instead of realizing that covenant theology and amillennialism by extension take Scripture just as seriously as they do, and hold firmly to inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility of Scripture, as soon as they hear anything in the New Testament interpreted in a symbolic or spiritual fashion, the noses go up in the air and the charge of liberalism or spiritualizing Scripture is leveled. In their view, no worse charge can be leveled.
2. Amillenialists and Covenant Theologians do not relate everything in the news to Scripture.
One of the major attractions of dispensational theology now days to the general Christian is its apparent ability to relate just about every event in the middle east and around the world to the Scriptures. In the hands of an able communicator, this is powerful. Thus, when a John Hagee, Jack Van Impe, or Dave Hunt see world events happening and relate them to fulfilled prophecy in Scripture, the church takes notice. There is something inherently exciting about it, after all. We can literally see the world events transpiring and see how these able dispensational teachers relate them to Scripture. This creates an attractive sense of utter urgency, as we move closer to the rapture and unveiling of antichrist. According to Riddlebarger, this “makes a more theologically grounded system like amillennialism seem almost irrelevant to everyday Christian living.”25 Amillennarians need to focus on the fact that we as well look with just as much anticipation for the coming of Christ. It is not only dispensationalists who do so.
3. Amillennialism is not even considered.
Much of Christianity, under the teaching of popular and very visible dispensational teaching, doesn’t even consider amillennialism as a viable option regarding eschatology. The reasons for this are quite simple really. First, we can go back to reason 1. They don’t consider it because they have been indoctrinated that amillennialists spiritualize the Bible, the worst of interpretive liberalism. But this of course is a grievous straw man, as I have hopefully shown in the preceding arguments I have made. They’ve also been taught, thanks to authors such as Hal Lindsey, that amillennialism is “demonic and heretical”26 as well as anti-Semitic. Of course such is not the case on either charge. If it is, the vast majority of Christianity has been demonic and heretical and anti-Semitic, which flies in the face of Christ’s promise that “the gates of hell will not prevail” (Matt 16:18) against his church.
Riddlebarger concludes, “But this should not surprise us (that amillennialism is dismissed immediately by many) since investigating a new and controversial eschatological position always involves a risk. Often times, people become comfortable with one particular millennial position, usually the one they embraced when they first became Christians, and then they dig in their heels when their view is challenged. This tendency is part of fallen human nature. We do not find it easy to objectively evaluate matters we feel strongly about with open minds and without prejudice.”27
Thus, hopefully you can see that there is good reason for the amillennial interpretation regarding eschatology. There is also very good reason to doubt the premillennial interpretation. As I said from the outset, I do not and will not consider this topic something to be divisive over. I heartily consider premillennial believers brothers and sisters in Christ, and will continue to do so. This is not a question of the gospel, but of end times theology, and therefore, we ought to be gracious to each other in this regard. Personally, I do not think the premillennial position in any form to be tenable biblically, but I will be pleasantly surprised if I am raptured away!
But as for now, I remain a staunch amillenarian, and I hold no apology for this viewpoint.
1. Floyd Hamilton, “The Basis for Millennial Faith,” in William E. Cox, ed., Amillennialism Today (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1966), 24-25, 53-54
2. Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today, 86-89
3. Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times (Baker, Grand Rapids, 2003), 39
4. Ibid, 40
5. Hal Lindsey, The Rapture (New York: Bantam, 1983), 30
6. Anthony Hoekema, The Bible and the Future (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1979), 173
7. Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times (Baker, Grand Rapids, 2003), 232
8. Ibid, 232
9. John F. Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago, Moody, 1978), 30
10. Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times (Baker, Grand Rapids, 2003), 197
11. Ibid, 200
12. William Hendricksen, More than Conquerors (Grand Rapids, Baker, 1982), 21
13. Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times (Baker, Grand Rapids, 2003), 203-204
14. R. Fowler White, “Reexamining the Evidence for Recapitulation in Rev 20:1-10,” Westminster Theological Journal 51 (Fall 1989), 327
15. Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times (Baker, Grand Rapids, 2003), 207-208
16. Ibid, 210
17. Ibid, 211
18. Ibid, 212
19. Ibid, 213
20. G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1999), 995-996
21. Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times (Baker, Grand Rapids, 2003), 207-208
22. George E. Ladd, Commentary on Revelation (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1987), 265
23. Ibid, 267
24. Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times (Baker, Grand Rapids, 2003), 219
25. Ibid, 230
26. Hal Lindsey, The Rapture (New York: Bantam, 1983), 30
27. Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times (Baker, Grand Rapids, 2003), 39