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Premillennialism revisited

Premillennialism revisited May 9, 2011

This is an addendum to my recent post “The Kingdom of God as critical principle.”  Some have asked me to elaborate on the millennial kingdom.

There is no single premillennial view of the details of the thousand year reign of Christ on earth.  For the most recent discussion of historic premillennialism that compares and contrasts it with dispensational premillennialism see The Case for Historic Premillennialism: An Alternative to “Left Behind” Eschatology edited by Craig L. Blomberg and Sung Wook Chung (Baker Academic).

I grew up premillennial and dispensational.  I still have my mother’s Bible which was on her bed when she died at age 32 when I was 2 years old.  It is a leather bound Scofield Reference Bible.  I sometimes joke that we (my family and church) tended to regard the study notes of that study Bible as equally inspired with the text.

Here are the words to a song we sang at church.  I doubt most of you have ever heard it.  I don’t think I’ve sung it since I was 10 or so.  It’s called Our Lord’s Return to Earth:

I am watching for the coming of the glad millennial day,
When our blessèd Lord shall come and catch His waiting bride away.
Oh! my heart is filled with rapture as I labor, watch, and pray,
For our Lord is coming back to earth again.

Refrain

Oh, our Lord is coming back to earth again.
Yes, our Lord is coming back to earth again.
Satan will be bound a thousand years; we’ll have no tempter then,
After Jesus shall come back to earth again.

Jesus’ coming back will be the answer to earth’s sorrowing cry,
For the knowledge of the Lord shall fill the earth and sea and sky.
God shall take away all sickness and the sufferer’s tears will dry,
When our Savior will come back to earth again.

Yes, the ransomed of the Lord shall come to Zion then with joy,
And in all His holy mountain nothing hurts or shall destroy.
Perfect peace shall reign in every heart, and love without alloy,
After Jesus shall come back to earth again.

Then the sin and sorrow, pain and death of this dark world shall cease,
In a glorious reign with Jesus of a thousand years of peace.
All the earth is groaning, crying for that day of sweet release,
For our Jesus shall come back to earth again.

I long ago discarded the dispensationalism of my church and family, but I’ve never found good reason to discard the premillennialism (of the faith of my childhood and youth).  It seems rooted in Scriptures such as Isaiah 11 and 65 and Revelation 20.  Most of the so-called “minor prophets” also make some reference to an earthly millennium during which the messiah will rule and reign over “peaceable kingdom.”

Now, some have tried to argue that Isaiah 65 (for example) is about heaven, not about an earthly messianic kingdom at the end of history.  However, that doesn’t work because verse 20 refers to people dying during this time.

Second century church father Irenaeus wrote much about this earthly millennium in Against Heresies, Book V, chapters XXVII-XXXVI.  He steadfastly rejected any allegorical interpretation of Revelation 20 or the prophets’ descriptions of the kingdom of God on earth.  He clearly distinguishes between the earthly kingdom of God AFTER Christ returns and the “supercelestial” kingdom of the new heaven and new earth after that.  Irenaeus traces this teaching about an earthly kingdom of God with Jesus reigning as messiah on earth to John the Apostle through Papias and Polycarp whom he knew personally.

Now, the details of this millennial reign of Christ on earth are sketchy both in Scripture and in the church fathers.  Some of the description may very well be figurative.  But THAT there will be such an earthly millennium of peace and justice seems clear–both in Scripture and most of the church fathers before Augustine (with the exception of Origen).  It was Augustine who overturned premillennialism and influenced the church to adopt what has come to be called amillennialism (no earthly, visible, political rule and reign of Christ except in the church).

Reinhold Niebuhr famously quipped that we should not want to know too much about the “furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell.”  I would say the same about our knowledge of the millennium.  We have to be satisfied with what is given in Scripture and, perhaps, in the earliest church fathers such as Irenaeus.  The rest is speculation.

It seems like reverent speculation, however, to suggest that the righteous and unrighteous will both be citizens of that kingdom of God on earth with the unrighteous serving Christ unwillingly.

For me, belief in the millennium serves two purposes. First, it tells me that God’s salvific concern is not just for souls but for society.  Second, it gives me what I call the critical principle for deciding what I can be comfortable with now and what I cannot be comfortable with now–in terms of social conditions.

Some have argued in the past that premillennialism encourages quietism and otherworldliness among Christians.  I disagree.  If understood correctly, premillennialism does just the opposite.  IF poverty, injustice, oppression, cruelty, etc., will not be part of Christ’s messianic reign on earth, then my task as a Christian, as a citizen first and foremost of that kingdom, is to do my best to abolish those things here and now in anticipation of that future.  Also, if God plans to establish his kingdom on earth, then he cares about the whole world including nature.  That gives us motive to be “keepers of the garden” until he comes.

Personally, I cannot see any reasons to discard historic premillennialism, rightly understood, except anti-supernaturalism or otherworldiness.  German theologian Jurgen Moltmann has recognized this and the political advantages of premillennialism and adopted a version of it for his own eschatological theology.  This is made clear especially in his book The Coming of God.

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