Amillennialism: Rethinking and Critiquing My Eschatology After Five Years
Back in May 2007 I posted a little blurb on my silly little blog (Dunne’s Discourses) about how I had become an Amillennialist. The main person responsible for my conversion was Pastor Kim Riddlebarger of Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim, CA. His book A Case for Amillennialism is one of the best at defending the position from a Reformed perspective. Since it is almost the fifth anniversary of my eschatological conversion from Dispensational Premillennialism to Reformed Amillennialism I thought I should take a look at this issue afresh. To be candid, my certainty regarding Amillennialism has waned since 2007. I still hold to it, but it is slipping away from me at a steady pace. The pragmatic problem that creates the biggest issue for me is thinking ahead to the time when I’ll be applying for jobs at Christian Universities and Seminaries. The problem is that I’m an evangelical mutt. I’m partly Reformed and partly Anabaptist. So on the one hand I’m not Reformed enough to teach at any Reformed or Presbyterian institution, and on the other hand I’m too Reformed to teach at most broadly evangelical schools. And the issue that makes me “too Reformed” is eschatology. So there is a pragmatic impetus for reconsidering my eschatology – I’ll be honest – but the original conviction that led me to Amillennialism in the first place was a deep concern to go where the Bible led me and nowhere else. So what I thought I’d do in this post is take a look at the arguments that were originally convincing to me back in 2007 and respond to them with my 2012 perspective. My original comments will be in block quotes:
Like most American evangelicals, I grew up attending a dispensational church. I also attended a Christian high school that taught basic Dispensationalism. This is usually enough to create any evangelical into a dispensationalist, but throw in reading the increasingly popular end-times series, Left Behind, and you have all the necessary pre-requisites to be a full blown pretribulational premillennial dispensationalist. Obviously, when you’re a dispensationalist nothing is more abhorred then Amillennialism. I too was there. I hated Amillennialism. I viewed it as liberal theology like most do (never mind the historical precedence), and I thought that it essentially threw away the book of revelation and simply turned it into a giant symbolic analogy of the present age in an arbitrary fashion. Amillennialism, I thought, was a horrible position to hold.
Regardless of where my eschatological journey takes me, it is certainly clear that Amillennialism will never be viewed as a liberal eschatological position in and of itself.
My own wanderings in eschatology over the past year have lead me towards an Amillennial conclusion, despite my prior assessments. The first problem came with pretribulationalism. After studying the “rapture” I realized that it is always in relation to Christ’s physical return. Despite the arguments about imminence, I realized that 1 Thess 4, and Mt 24 give us no understanding of a “secret” return. Without going into detail here, I quickly rejected the notion of a pretribulational rapture. I realized that the view of a pretribulational rapture is actually more tied to ecclesiology then it is to eschatology. This seemed highly problematic to me. The only reason the pretrib rapture exists in theological studies is because of a staunch dichotomy between Israel and the Church. Something that I have now rejected for a covenantal approach to their relationship (cf. Ro 2:29; Ro 9:6-8; Gal 3:15-29; Gal 6:16; Eph 2:11-22; Phil 3:3; 1 Peter 2:9-10; Heb 8:6-13).
As this paragraph shows, I was very eager to reject Dispensationalism. I imagine that in my eagerness to expel the Dispensational bathwater I may have rejected the baby of Premillennialism too quickly. I guess in my mind the concept of a Millennium felt too much like Dispensationalism since it was the only form of Premillennialism I had experienced (Though, of course, I knew full well that Historic Premillennialism existed and along with me repudiated Dispensationalism).
In accepting Covenant Theology, I became afraid about how this would affect my eschatology. I knew that Dispensational Premillenialism was out as an option, but Historic Premillenialism, Postmillennialism, and Amillennialism were still left to study. Initially Historic Premillenialism seemed good because it embraces a posttribulational rapture, and covenant theology. However, my problems further extended into areas of the resurrection, judgment and the end of the age. Historic Premillenialism gave insufficient answers to these questions. How can there be two resurrections? Two judgments? Or a thousand year transitional period before the age to come? Outside of Revelation, I found the NT writers teaching that the resurrection, judgment, and end of the age all happening at Christ’s return. This posed as an incredible problem for any form of Premillenialism. Because of these thoughts, I started to seriously doubt Historic Premillenialism.
At the moment this is still a major hang-up for me. In fact, it is the relationship between Revelation and the rest of the Bible that creates the problem. I am convinced – and I seriously doubt I’d ever change my view on this point – that outside of Revelation the rest of the Bible has a non-Millennial grid. So what’s that bit about the wolf and the lamb co-exisiting together all about? That’s not the Millennium, that’s the new earth! That is the reversal of the curse of creation. Is Paul premillennial? The answer is unequivocally NO. I don’t care what you think about the meaning of εἴτα in 1 Cor 15.24 because 1 Cor 15.25 is quite clear that Jesus is reigning now. At least Paul didn’t foresee a Millennium.
As I’ve come to consider, a non-millennial grid in 65 books of the Bible cannot rule out the existence of a Millennium in 1, namely, Revelation. So if I became a Premillennialist – I said IF! – I’d be the kind of Premillennialist that says that the whole Bible anticipates a glorious new earth in which the curse is reversed but from the book of Revelation our knowledge of eschatology is expanded to show that there is an additional transition between the “present age” and the “age to come.”
So I decided to study Amillennialism. I knew that Amillennialism would have a lot of explaining to do for me to accept it… and to my surprise it exceeded all of my expectations. At the outset I determined that unless Amillennialism gave a sufficient answer to my problems then I would turn to Postmillennialism, or embrace a form of eschatological agnosticism. My initial problems with Amillennialism were threefold. How could this present age be the millennial reign of Christ? How could Satan possibly be bound in this age? And How Does the Amillennialist explain the first resurrection mentioned in Revelation 20:5?
Dispensationalists view Revelation 19-20 in a chronological fashion. However, there is good reason to believe that the two chapters describe the same event from different perspectives. The battle described in Rev 19 after the second coming of Christ is one in which Christ destroys the nations in his judgment. Following this incident is the millennial reign of Christ, according to dispensationalists, which is followed by yet another major battle. However, it makes more sense to view these battles as the same event. A few reasons suggest this. One: the battles of Rev 16, 19 and 20 use imagery from the same event described in Ezekiel 38-39. Demonstrating that these major battles are not sequential but recapitulated. Two: If Christ has already judged the nations and destroyed them in Rev 19, where do the nations come from to fight Christ once again in Rev 20 and why would Satan be bound so as to not decieve them? Especially since 19:18-21 describes the completeness of the battle in all-inclusive terms. Three: In revelation there are references to battles in general terms in chapters 9, 11, 12, and 13. Yet, in the last three times a battle is described (16, 19, and 20), a definite article is used in the Greek text. These chapters are the last three times a battle is described and the only time the word battle is used with a definite article in Revelation. Four: Since Rev 15 tells us that 7 bowls will be poured out for the completion of God’s wrath, and because Rev 19:11-21 marks the end of God’s wrath against the world, then Rev 20:7-10 must be recapitulated with the battle of Rev 19. All these reasons were very convincing to me.
As I argued here, Revelation presents a cyclical pattern of recapitulation rather than a chronological order of eschatological events. As I’ve realized, this view is not incompatible with Historic Premillennialism. The main question is whether Rev 20 reverts back to the beginning of the cycle again or if it is chronologically subsequent to Rev 19. This is the main issue actually. At the moment I’m still convinced that the battle of Rev 20.7-10 is the same end-time battle portrayed in Rev 12, 16, and 19. If this is true then the Millennium of Rev 20 refers to the present age (as I and other Amillennialists believe). Yet the major difficulty with this interpretation, as I’ve come to recognize over the years, is that there are other Jewish Apocalyptic texts like 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch that are roughly contemporary with the time that Revelation was written that contain references to a temporal messianic kingdom before the restoration of creation. The pattern parallels Revelation so much that it is difficult to argue that Revelation is actually doing something different in Rev 20, even with recapitulation. As I’ve become more of an aspiring scholar since 2007 my sensitivity to historical arguments like this has grown tremendously. This is not something to brush aside easily and may be the final nail in the coffin for me at some point.
In addition to this point, there are other aspects of my argumentation above that I don’t find compelling anymore. My second reason regarding the presence of nations in Rev 20 when they’ve already been destroyed in Rev 19 is hardly as convincing as it was originally. My third reason about the definite article in Greek is just silly. Lastly, my fourth reason is equally not as convincing. The bowls are symbolic, and this point shouldn’t be pressed so tightly for one’s eschatological system. If God wants to dispense more wrath why can’t he? So basically I’m agnostic about my first argument and find reasons 2, 3, and 4 unconvincing.
Therefore, if the battles of Rev 19 & 20 are recapitulated then the thousand-year reign of Christ is the present age. This would make sense because we are told multiple times that Christ is currently seated at the right hand of the throne of God, indicating that he is reigning, and because Rev 19 describes the judgment that Christ brings at his second coming. The implications of this would mean that Satan is currently bound. This idea isn’t as problematic as it initially sounds. Not only do the NT writers demonstrate this idea generally all throughout their writings with the great spiritual victory that Christ won against the forces of Satan, but also Christ himself had some interesting things to say.
The problem here is that I too quickly dismissed Historic Premillennialism by assuming that Jesus’ present reign could only work with a non-millennial grid. Of course, I knew Historic Premillennialism would say that Jesus reigned presently, but my comments show that I didn’t think the two ideas really fit together. I no longer think there is a difficulty there. And in regards to Satan being bound, I am convinced that the NT consistently portrays demonic forces as subdued, conquered, defeated, destroyed – and yes – even bound, at the present time (Mt 12:22-29; Luke 8:30-31; 10:18-20; 13:16; John 12:31-32; 16:8-11; 17:15; Acts 26.18; Rom 16:20; Col 2.14-15; Eph 4.8; 2 Thess 2.7; Heb 2.14-15; 1 Pet 3.19; 2 Pet 2.4; 1 John 2:13; 3:8; 4:3-5; 5:18; Jude 6; Rev 12.10). So if I ever became a Premillennialist, I’d be the kind that would never bring up Rev 20.3 and the binding of Satan as an argument against Amillennialism.
The last question that I needed answered was the idea of the first resurrection in Rev 20:5. According to Dispensationalists, the first resurrection occurs at the commencement of the millennial reign of Christ, in which believers are resurrected, and the second resurrection occurs at the end of the millennium, in which those who come to Christ during the millennium are resurrected along with the rest of the reprobates. Not only is the idea of two resurrections nowhere to be found in the bible outside of this passage, which ought to indicate something on its own, but there is contextual evidence which should not lead us to believe that the two resurrections are sequential, but of different kinds. Rev 20 contrasts the first resurrection with second death. The second death is not the second sequential death of man, but a different kind of death: a spiritual death. This would seem to make sense for the first resurrection as well, since those who participate in the first resurrection will not face the second death, as Rev 20:6 tells us. Therefore, the first resurrection is not the first set of bodily resurrections followed by another set of bodily resurrections, but is instead a different kind of resurrection. The first being spiritual, the second being bodily. This makes sense when you consider that the thrones mentioned in 20:4 are for those beheaded for their testimony of Christ. These thrones are not earthly, but heavenly. They are for the saints. With this in mind, and the multiple passages in the NT that tell us that the bodily resurrection occurs after Christ’s physical return, it further adds support to such a conclusion.
Again, on the issue of what the Bible teaches, outside of Revelation, there is certainly only one Resurrection (outside of Jesus as the first-fruits). However, if Revelation does teach two resurrections separated by the millennium then this would be an unanticipated expansion of our knowledge of eschatology, but the discontinuity doesn’t automatically nullify it. We believe in a God who has progressively revealed himself. This means that we shouldn’t rule out a priori that Revelation can teach us new things about eschatology (even if I legitimately affirm that the rest of the Bible does not teach those things).
The real difficulty with the argument I tried to make regarding the two kinds of death is the use of the verb ζάω (zao), meaning ‘to live’. The vision in Rev 20.4-6 is certainly of those who have died, but we must play fair with the concept of “coming to life” in Rev 20.4-5. What does John mean when he says “the rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended” in Rev 20.5? The “coming to life” of the rest of the dead ought to be analogous to the “coming to life” for those who experience the first resurrection (thus, regeneration or spiritual disembodied existence are ruled out for the first use of ζάω). This seems to be a serious problem with the Amillennial position. On the face of it, a Premillennial interpretation can make better sense of this symbolic language.
In conclusion I should mention a few additional hang-ups:
1) I’ve started to wonder if it is at all possible to separate Amillennialism from the musings of 4th-5th century Augustine of Hippo in The City of God. From his vantage point the Church is no longer in a state of crisis and persecution from Rome, but instead Rome is the Church! I’m wondering if it’s really possible to interpret Revelation with an Amillennial grid before Constantine.
2) When I first became an Amillennialist I had disdain for Premillennialism in a such a way that sounded like Gnosticism. I contrasted the physical types and shadows of the OT with the heavenly/spiritual realities of the NT. Thus, the idea of Jesus reigning of Earth sounded so barbaric to me. However, I began to transform my Amillennialism into one that empasized the new earth more and more. This largely started with reading another great Amillennialist Anthony A. Hoekema (The Bible and The Future). Of course, N.T. Wright’s famous Surprised By Hope also contributed greatly to my thinking. Both of these writings stem from an Amillennial perspective, but it had the affect of making me realize that I didn’t disdain the concept of an earthly Millennium any longer. Interestingly, back in the 3rd century, Irenaeus wrote his famous Against Heresies that rejected the Gnostic teachings. One of his main arguments against the Gnostics was a biblical theological appraisal of creation that culminated in the Millennium. This is quite interesting to consider. I’m definitely not a Gnostic Amillennialist, I place a lot of emphasis on the new earth. But now the door is wide open for another earthly phase in the process. At least, I have no objection on grounds of it being earthly or physical.
3) I don’t like Premillennialism. I’ll admit it, it sounds very odd when you describe it to people. In light of all of my reflections I’m convinced that the goal of creation is the new earth and not the Millennium. In my opinion, the whole Bible emphasizes the new earth and the new creation. Thus, even if Premillennialism is true, it shouldn’t be central to our eschatological position. Our eschatology should not be defined by our belief in a Millennium or not. The Bible doesn’t emphasize it, so why should we? Our emphasis ought to be the new earth. That is where eschatology is headed. So if I became a Premillennialist, I’d be a closet Premillennialist.
Well… I’m still an Amillennialist. But I’m nowhere near as convinced as I was in 2007. I would appreciate some interaction on this issue as I’m trying to address this question and settle it in my mind. Please leave a comment. I’d love to interact with you about this stuff!
Postscript: I have omitted a few paragraphs of my original 2007 post “How I Became An Amillennialist” along the way. If you’re interested in reading the full blog post, here it is. For those of you familiar with The Two Cities it is obvious that the present project was inspired by Bryan’s brilliant post: “Letter to Myself at 15.”