Doctrine of the Last Things (Part 10)
Transcript of William Lane Craig's Defenders 2 class.
Views on the Millennium
We have begun to talk about different views of the millennium following the return of Christ. As I said last time, this is not an area which I have studied. So we are just doing a brief survey without assessment of competing views on the millennium. Last time I said that there were three fundamental perspectives on the millennium:
1. Amillennialism holds that there is in no literal sense a millennium – there is no thousand year reign of Christ. This is purely symbolic.
2. Postmillennialism holds that the millennium is a description of the triumph of the church in human history as the Gospel goes out to all the world and the Kingdom of God is established here on Earth.
3. Premillennialism holds that there will be a literal thousand year earthly reign of Jesus Christ following his return.
You can see that the first two do not take the millennium typically to be a literal thousand year period of time. Only premillennialism takes it to be literal. What differentiates the amillennialists and the postmillennialists, I think, is the sort of triumphalism that characterizes postmillennialism. The amillennialist treats this purely symbolically. But there is the additional element in the postmillennial view that the millennium is this sort of idyllic period of human history that will arrive here on Earth as a result of the propagation and worldwide triumph of the Gospel and the subduing of the forces of unbelief and sin.
One of the members of this class shared with me a link that contains a discussion of these three views that looks to be very interesting though I haven’t had a chance to see it myself. But I did want to share it with you. It is at desiringgod.org/resourceslibrary/4262/video. This is a panel discussion among proponents of these different millennial views moderated by John Piper. Defending the amillennial view is Sam Storms. Defending the postmillennial view is Doug Wilson. Defending historic premillennialism is Jim Hamilton. All are responsible representatives of these views. By historical premillennialism they mean that this is a millennial view that doesn’t involve rapture theology – just classic millennial theology. So if you are interested in following this up, you may want to look at that further.
What we want to do now is to look at some of the arguments for and against these specific views.
Let’s begin with the amillennial perspective. The amillennialist presents a number of arguments in favor of his view that might seem surprisingly strong for those of us who have been raised in churches where we’ve always been taught premillennialism.
1. The amillennialist points out that the millennium is taught in only one passage in Scripture. It is only found in Revelation 20:1-10. It is not to be found anywhere else in Scripture. So this whole doctrine of the millennium is based on this single passage. This comes from a book of the Bible that is filled with apocalyptic symbolism and imagery – dragons, monsters, beasts, bowls of wrath being poured out upon people, a many-eyed lamb on the throne in heaven. The whole book of Revelation is permeated by symbolic, apocalyptic elements that aren’t to be taken literally. That really gives one pause, I think – why should we take the millennium literally if it is only found in Scripture in the book of Revelation, a book that is noted for its symbolic and apocalyptic imagery. It would be much more convincing if the doctrine of the millennium were found in the teachings of Jesus and in the teachings of Paul as the Second Coming is, and then also in the book of Revelation. But to base a doctrine totally upon one passage in the book of Revelation, I think, ought to give us pause.
2. The amillennialist will point out that Scripture teaches only one (and not two) resurrections of the dead. There will be a single resurrection of the dead when Christ returns. This is a point that we’ve already seen in our study of the return of Christ. But let’s just look at a few passages by way of review. Daniel 12:2, for example, in the Old Testament, says, “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Here there is a resurrection predicted of both the righteous and the unrighteous alike. Turning over to the New Testament you find Jesus teaching something similar in John 5:28-29: “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment.” Here Jesus again speaks of a resurrection of the evil and the righteous alike when the Son of Man returns. Finally, Acts 24:15 says, “there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust.” Here Paul teaches that there will be a resurrection of the righteous and the unrighteous alike. So there is just one resurrection, not multiple resurrections such as you have in Revelation 20:1-10.
3. The idea of sinners living alongside glorified, resurrected, righteous saints is an intolerable thought. Think of what the millennium contemplates. This is after the return of Christ. The dead in Christ are risen. They have now no longer earthly bodies; they have resurrection bodies like Christ’s with all of its supernatural powers. They have a body that Paul described as immortal, incorruptible, powerful, and glorious. They are now free of sin. Sin has been done away with. These are glorified saints. Yet we are to imagine them living in a society with mortal, sinful, corruptible people and that this is the kind of interrelationship that they would have? It just seems inconceivable that you would have that sort of mixture.
4. If Christ is present and reigning as described in the millennium then how can people persist in sin? The whole idea of the Kingdom of God being established is to do away with sin and with the enemies of God. So how is it that Christ is now reigning in his millennial kingdom on Earth and yet sin still continues and people still persist in sin? What does it mean that Christ is the reigning King? That is the situation we have now! Christ is King but the Kingdom isn’t yet established, right? It is still waiting to be fully established on Earth when sin and death will be done away with.
5. The amillennialist would say the millennium serves no purpose. Why do such a thing as to have this strange earthly kingdom? Why not simply, upon people being raised from the dead and judged, go into the eternal state of heaven or hell? The millennium doesn’t seem to serve any purpose.
How might premillennialists respond to these sorts of arguments?
1. In response to (1) that there is only one passage in Scripture that teaches it, they will point out that the teaching that God’s Kingdom will be established on Earth is all throughout the Old Testament. This is the Jewish hope that God will establish his Kingdom here on Earth, not in some afterlife. And they will point out that the prophecies of the first coming of Christ are not clearly distinguished from the prophecies of the Second Coming. Everyone who believes that Christ is the Messiah has to think that many of the Old Testament prophecies about Messiah (about how the government will be upon his shoulders and his reign will be forever and ever) haven’t yet been fulfilled in a kind of literal, temporal sense. So there is a distinction between those prophecies fulfilled in the first coming and those that will be fulfilled in the Second Coming, and they would insist that these prophecies about an earthly Kingdom go to support the idea of the millennium – that there will be an earthly Kingdom of Christ established here on this planet.
They will also point out that in Revelation 20:1-10 it says that Satan is going to be temporarily bound, incapacitated, put into a pit, so that he will be temporarily out of commission. But they would point out that during the present age, that isn’t true. Satan is very much on the prowl. Look at 1 Peter 5:8 which says, “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour.” So against the postmillennialist, at least, it doesn’t seem that Satan has been bound. He is still very much on the loose. Also 1 John 5:19, a very sobering verse, says, “We know that we are of God, and the whole world is in the power of the evil one.” So the whole world is under the power of Satan in the present age. Therefore, this can’t be reasonably described as the millennial kingdom – the church age.
2. In response to the second argument that Scripture teaches only one (not two) resurrections, the premillennialist might say look at John 5 again. In John 5, Jesus teaches that there will be a resurrection of the just and of the unjust. So this is really two resurrections; it is not one resurrection. I am not convinced that is such a good response because it does seem to me that Jesus there is talking about one resurrection of two sets of people. What he differentiates is not the resurrections but the subject of the resurrection. But nevertheless one could say that here two resurrections are described and these might be temporally separated.
3. What about the argument that the idea of sinners living alongside of and having relationships with glorified, resurrected saints is just unbelievable? They would point out that Christ was on Earth in his glorified resurrection body for forty days before ascending. So this isn’t an idea that is completely absurd. Christ was in his resurrected glorified body here on Earth for forty days among his disciples. That is a fair enough point, although it really doesn’t go to speak to the issue. It seems to me of imagining a whole society, a whole planet, which is populated by both ordinary, mortal sinners and then living in their midst and even maybe married with some of them are these glorified, resurrected, immortal, righteous persons. That really, I think, is quite unlike saying Jesus was temporarily with the disciples for forty days after his resurrection and prior to his ascension.
4. What about number (4) – if Christ is present and reigning, how can people persist in sin? What they would point out is that people resisted Christ during his earthly life when he was present among them, and people continued to resist Christ today even though the Holy Spirit is present among us. Again, I think that response kind of fails to convince because Christ during his earthly reign was here in his so-called state of humiliation, not his state of exaltation. Remember when we looked at the Doctrine of Christ we saw that there is this period of humiliation where Christ takes on the form of a servant. He lowers himself, as it says in Philippians 2, and is obedient until death. But it is not the same as the glorified, risen, reigning Christ. Similarly, even today the Holy Spirit doesn’t make the glorified, risen Christ evident and apparent to everybody. So I think that appealing to the way in which people resisted Jesus during his earthly life and resist the Holy Spirit today isn’t really comparable to what we would be talking about in the millennium.
5. In response to the argument that the millennium serves no purpose, premillennialists will say that the millennium shows God’s plan for social structures, for redeeming human society, and therefore this is a worthwhile thing to do rather than just usher in the eternal state.
Those are some of the arguments pro and con about amillennialism. You can consider them for yourself and look into it further if you wish to.
Let’s talk now about some arguments pro and con concerning postmillennialism. The postmillennialist will say that Christ has given a Great Commission to his church to fulfill, and that the church will fulfill that Commission. That Great Commission is found in Matthew 28:18-20:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”
The postmillennialist will say that there are indications in Scripture that the church will, in the power of the Holy Spirit, carry out this Commission and be successful in its mission. For example, Matthew 13:31-32. Jesus tells a lot of parables of this sort:
Another parable he put before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
Here Jesus says from its ignominious beginnings, the Kingdom of God is going to spread throughout human society and become this great cultural influence and indeed transform the world. There are many passages that suggest there will be this tremendous harvest of souls that will come into the Kingdom of God as the church fulfills the Great Commission. So they would argue that this gives grounds for thinking that we don’t need to think of the millennium literally; they would employ the same sorts of arguments against the literal interpretation that the amillennialist has already given. But they would add this additional note – there is this triumph that will occur through the church’s obedience.
Against postmillennialism many people will say that this view was an overly optimistic and rather naive view of human history that came to a shattering end with the 20th century – World War I and World War II and the horrors that have followed, and the withdrawal of the colonial powers from the third world and the aftermath of colonialism. But I am not persuaded that that kind of argument has any sort of merit in terms of the Scriptural warrant for or against a view. What we see in the 20th century could just be a blip in the whole scheme of human history. If Christ returns, say, in AD 5000 or AD 12,000 then what happens in this century could be nothing. The fact is that it is very true that the Christian church has from these most ignominious beginnings in first century Palestine grown throughout the world so that now there are at least three and a half billion people on Earth claiming at least to be Christians. About a third of the population of the Earth at least claims to be Christian. The Christian church and the Christian movement is the largest, most successful movement in the history of mankind. It is really astonishing when you look at the history of how this movement spread geographically over the twenty centuries of its existence. So we must not take the short-term perspective on the church and say just because the 20th century has involved a lot of evil and suffering that therefore the church is not going to be successful in its mission.
In fact, quite the contrary, it has been in the midst of this suffering and war that the growth of evangelical Christianity throughout the world has been beyond parallel in church history. The last twenty-five years of the 20th century were a period of church growth around the world that are simply unprecedented, as in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The church is growing by leaps and bounds. So we must not be misled by the disastrous things that are happening in the world to think that the church is failing in its Great Commission.
On the other hand, I think there are good arguments that could be raised against the postmillennial view.
1. For example, these passages about the Kingdom of God growing from a mustard seed to a large tree, or about the leaven that a woman puts in the lump until the whole dough is leavened doesn’t really say exactly how large the Kingdom of God will grow to be among humanity. It could be true that there will be, and has been, this great harvest of souls for the Kingdom of God – millions and millions of people coming to Christ. But that doesn’t necessarily mean there is going to be this sort of millennial kingdom established on Earth.
2. There are a good number of passages in Scripture that predict quite the opposite. In the end times, there will actually be a falling away from the truth. There will be an apostasy and departure from belief. For example, 2 Timothy 3:1-5, Paul says,
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it.
Paul here predicts that there is going to be this falling away in the last times. Jesus in fact himself asks when the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on Earth? That is an open question.
3. The postmillennialist doesn’t really deal very well with the terrible tribulation that is going to precede Christ’s return. You will remember that Jesus taught there would be this terrible, terrible time of tribulation before Christ would return. Certainly the book of Revelation teaches this as well. Postmillennialists will see these predictions fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. So that means they take a kind of preterist view of those predictions. You will remember we talked about that view – in the destruction of Jerusalem the great tribulation has already come in God’s judgment upon Israel and Jerusalem, and that the coming of the Son of Man to the Father was not his visible coming to Earth but it was his coming into the sort to speak heavenly throne room to receive the divine authority and vindication.
Insofar as the postmillennialist has to appeal to preterism to preserve his view from this criticism, I think it becomes implausible for the reasons that I laid out when I criticized preterism. Although preterism has some nice features to it, in the end I think it can’t make sense of the biblical data, particularly concerning the resurrection of Christ.
Those are some of the arguments for and against postmillennialism. Let’s say something about premillennialism.
The premillennialist, again, will appeal to Old Testament prophecies of an earthly kingdom which will still involve mortality, sin, the presence of enemies. In these Old Testament prophecies of God’s Kingdom that would be established, it wasn’t envisioned as a Kingdom that would do away with things like sin, death, and the enemies of God. So the premillennialist would say that the idea of a millennium such as John describes is right in line with these Old Testament prophecies about God’s Kingdom.
Secondly, they would point out that believers are supposed to reign with Christ. Christ has said that we will reign with him. But that is nowhere spoken of in the Scripture as a present reality. So against the postmillennialist, we are not reigning with Christ now in human history, nor will we be. But this will require the return of Christ and the establishment of the millennial kingdom if these prophecies concerning the co-regency of believers with Christ are to be fulfilled.
What might one say in response to those arguments? Certainly it is true with regard to the first argument that there are these Old Testament prophecies about the Kingdom of God being established. But if you take those literally then it leads to some very discomforting conclusions. For example, these prophecies in the Old Testament envision an era in which the temple sacrifices will be renewed. There will be the temple in Jerusalem, and now sacrifices are going to be offered to God. Wait a minute! The book of Hebrews talks about how Christ is the final sacrifice for sin. He has done away with these animal sacrifices of the old covenant. So are we to think that the Kingdom of God that Christ has come to establish will involve a renewal of animal sacrifices in the Jewish temple? That seems crazy. But if you say that this is non-literal then, of course, you have taken a step toward the other views of the millennium – the amillennial or postmillennial approach. You have to ask yourself, isn’t the predictions of the Kingdom the predictions of Christ’s Kingdom – his spiritual Kingdom – that is reigning right now and then will come to completion when Christ returns? I think it can lead to uncomfortable conclusions if you press those Old Testament prophecies too hard.
Secondly, what about the believers reigning with Christ? I think this is an interesting argument. I would think that the verses where Jesus says to his disciples that, “You will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” certainly envisions that kind of Kingdom being established. Then Christ will be the King over all of them. But one needs to ask why think this is something that happens here on Earth? Why couldn’t this be the establishment of Christ’s Kingdom in eternity and we will reign with Christ in eternity rather than just for this thousand-year period.
So, as I say, I don’t have any sort of verdict on this debate. This is not one that I’ve studied. But these are at least some of the issues that are raised pro and con with regard to these three perspectives.
Question: The criticism of premillennialism on having glorified people co-existing with unglorified, you have the example of Christ. It is true for most of that time he wasn’t in the glorified state, but he did miracles. When he raised Lazarus, you would think everybody would be believers, but some went to plot how they were going to kill him. I think that is a strong argument to say that this could co-exist. On the Old Testament side of things, you had situations where if this was all fulfilled with the destruction of Jerusalem what would you do with prophecies like in Zechariah that says all nations are going to come and observe the chosen people in Jerusalem and Christ will come down on the Mount of Olives and rule from that. Then I think the third thing is I think the amillennialist would have to explain why there is a literal Israel. Amillennialism doesn’t require a literal Israel. So I think they would have to explain that.
Answer: It is true that amillennial views do tend to be more popular among Reformed theologians or churches which would see the church as heir to all of these promises of Israel, rather than ethnic Jews. But it is not clear to me at least why a person couldn’t be amillennial and still think that God has a plan to bring as many Jews as possible into the Kingdom and that after the full number of Gentiles come to Christ that there will be a turning to Christ among ethnic Jews.
Followup: It could, but in amillennialism they take the Jews out of being . . .
Answer: It doesn’t have to. OK.
Question: In the passages about postmillennialism – the mustard seed parables, the leaven parable – mustard seeds only grow so big. They grow huge beyond what they start at, but there is an ending point. The same thing with leaven – a loaf of bread only gets so big before it collapses. So to say that those passages indicate the whole world will be saved – you can’t draw that conclusion based on those metaphors.
Answer: I think that you are right. I think that is true.
Question: I think it comes down to a matter of hermeneutics or how you interpret. As you alluded to, there are many Old Testament prophecies that talk about a literal kingdom on Earth. The amillennialist in rejecting the concept of that has to ignore or allegorize a huge number of these things. Another one is the fantastically detailed description of the millennial temple in Ezekiel 40 and 43. For me that just does far too much violence to the Scriptures without contextual or other justification. So I feel more comfortable with the premillennial view.
Answer: Could I ask you a question? How would you deal with the criticism that I mentioned that taking these passages literally involves a reestablishment of the temple sacrifices?
Followup: That is the most powerful argument against my position. The classic rebuttal to it is, “This is memorial.”
Answer: Let’s explain what you mean there. These are no longer being offered for sin or in the way they were in the Old Testament. These are memorial sacrifices to remember Christ’s sacrifice and so forth.
Followup: Sort of like communion is for the church.
Answer: On a Baptist view, right.
Followup: That won’t quite fly because I think it is in Ezekiel where it mentions actual propitiation that this is done. That implies that these sacrifices are actually doing something. If you examine the prophecies in Ezekiel, you will find some huge differences between the millennial temple and the classic temple. For instance, there is no high priest. If there were a high priest I would have to say hold the phone. We know Christ is the high priest. There is no high priest and there is no Day of Atonement. The best argument I have – it is not perfect, but I am OK with it – is that these sacrifices were because people coming to worship God (and he is in some physical form in the millennial temple) were ceremonially unclean. They may have had a traffic jam going over there – “Why you!” They’ve got their sin natures. Satan is bound during that period by the way, it is not going to be rampant, but there is sin during the millennial kingdom, I believe. They come, they hurry and go in there, and here is God in a physical form. No where in our current situation are we asked to go before God in a physical form, one that goes right to our senses. It is only spiritual. So I think the idea is that you might become ceremonial unclean. It occurred to me – remember the burning bush when Moses came up? – here we have a physical form of the manifestation of God. Moses was saved; he wasn’t perfect, but he was saved. But the warning was (if I remember correctly) loose the latches on your sandals because the ground that you stand upon was holy. He was saved but he had to do a little something. Did that take away his sin? Of course not. Taking off your sandals is not going to take away your sin. But it is a recognition that you are in the presence of a physical manifestation of the living God. Similarly, in the millennial temple, is that going to remove their sin by killing these animals? No, but it is more like a recognition. As I say, that is the best rebuttal that I can make.
Answer: Thank you. That is a very interesting distinction.
Next time we will begin to look at the state of the soul after death. Do you go to heaven when you die if you are believer? Do you go to hell? What does the Scripture have to say about the destiny of people after they die? That will be the question we take up next.
 A working link as of September 7, 2014 is http://www.desiringgod.org/conference-messages/an-evening-of-eschatology
 Total Running Time: 37:06 (Copyright © 2014 William Lane Craig)