Four Views on the Millennium

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Four Views on the Millennium

If you are an Adventist, you probably believe that the redeemed will spend a millennium in heaven after Jesus’ second coming to earth. It is something we look forward to and often talk about when we think of heaven. But did you know that not all Christians understands the millennium as Adventists do? In fact, four major views of the millennium have been adopted since the beginning of Christianity: classic (or historic) premillennialism, amillennialism, dispensational premillennialism, and postmillennialism.[1]

Each of these views can be explained in reference to the second coming of Christ. In short, premillennialists hold that Christ’s return on earth precedes the millennium, postmillennialists believe that the second coming will occur after a millennium during which Christ (though not physically present on earth) reigns here, while amillennialists reject any reign of Christ on earth.[2] It sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? But what does it mean if Christ’s reign precedes, follows the millennium, or that such a reign doesn’t really take place? What are some of the implications of these different views?

The following chronological summary of the four views touches on a few aspects of the millennium, such as its nature, the events taking place during it, and its connection to the second coming. Before proceeding, a review of the Bible reference is helpful. The only passage directly addressing the millennium is Revelation 20:1-6.

1 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding the key of the abyss and a great chain in his hand. 2 And he laid hold of the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years; 3 and he threw him into the abyss, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he would not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were completed; after these things he must be released for a short time. 4 Then I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark on their forehead and on their hand; and they came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were completed. This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy is the one who has a part in the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years. (Emphasis added)

The repeated word thousand years/millennium (5x) is the motif of this passage, and describes two major events: the binding of Satan for a thousand years (vs. 1-3), and the first resurrection, judgment and reign of the saints for a thousand years, while those destined for the second resurrection continue in the state of death (v. 4-6).

Classic or Historic Premillenialism

Premillenialism has been the eschatological belief held by the majority of Christians during the first four centuries A.D. Early Christianity placed great hope in Christ’s second advent, which Jesus Himself had predicted. His return was expected to be “personal, visible, sudden, bodily,” and “imminent,”[3] and would be preceded by a great tribulation involving wars, famines, earthquakes and pestilence (Luke 21:31), as well as the Antichrist’s persecution of the saints. These events were meant to prepare and purify the church for the return of Christ.[4] Thus, “the early church placed the return of Christ after the period of great tribulation.”[5]

According to Papias and Justin Martyr, Christ’s second coming marks the beginning of the millennium, a literal period of time during which he will establish his material kingdom on earth, with Jerusalem as its center. Irenaeus suggested the following sequence: Christ’s return and defeat of the Antichrist will be followed by the bodily resurrection of the Christians, the reign of Christians for a thousand years, the resurrection of the unbelievers after the thousand years, the final judgment, and finally the reward of the believers and the punishment of the unbelievers.[6]

Classic premillennialists interpret both resurrections spoken about in Revelation 20:1-6 to be physical, especially since the same word (ezesan) is used in both cases, and the context does not indicate a shift in meaning. They also believe that the two resurrections refer to two different groups, since those resurrected the first time do not appear to take part in the second resurrection.[7]

Classic premillennialism (in counter-distinction to dispensational premillennialism discussed below) holds to a post-tribulation teaching, according to which the church will not be spared the tribulation preceding the second coming of Christ. Scriptural grounds for this are found in Matthew 24 (suggesting that some of the elect, understood to mean believers, take part in the tribulation), Matthew 24:3 and Acts 1:6 (the signs of the second coming, indicating trials and tribulations of the saints), Revelation 7:14, and Mark 13:19, 24.[8] However, post-tribulationists make a distinction between tribulation and the “wrath of God.” While the believers will live through the tribulation, the wrath of God will be poured only upon the non-believers (John 3:36, Rom. 1:18, 2 Thess. 1:8, Rev. 6:16-17, 14:10, 16:19, 19:15, Rom. 5:9, 1 Thess. 1:10).[9]

Amillennialism

Amillennialism succeeded premillennialism by the fifth century. Some key theologians who promoted and advanced amillennialism were Tyconius and Augustine of Hippo, as well as Origen and Clement from the School of Alexandria. The Alexandrians’ allegorical method of interpretation and their emphasis on the spiritual/symbolic contributed greatly to the reinterpretation of the millennium. According to Origen, during the millennium, people will not eat actual sumptuous food, but will be nourished with the “bread of life,” which gives truth and wisdom.[10]

Tyconius, in his Book of Rules, upheld a spiritual interpretation of Biblical prophecy, which led him to understand the thousand years as a spiritual millennium wherein the saints, having overcome sin, live in righteousness. Augustine’s dislike for the premillennial materialism (particularly evident in the premillennialists’ expectation of material prosperity after Christ’s return) led him to adopt the amillennial view.

Generally, amillennialists don’t rest their interpretation of the millennium on Revelation 20:1-6 solely, or even primarily. Instead they often look at the entire book of Revelation, which they divide into seven sections, each describing different events in the period of the church from its inauguration (first coming of Christ) until the end of time (second coming of Christ). Accordingly, the millennium in Revelation 20 does not refer to a specific period of time, but the entire church history.[11]

The binding of Satan took place at the first coming of Christ, and this restriction imposed on him allowed for successful missionary work, resulting in the gospel being preached to the ends of the earth.[12] The conversion of Constantine in the fourth century and the legitimization of Christianity further contributed to the rapid extension of the church, strengthening the amillennial view. The millennium was expected to last until Jesus’ second coming at the end of the world.[13]

Augustine interpreted the first resurrection spoken of in Revelation 20:1-6 to indicate the spiritual resurrection of both those alive, as well as the dead who rested in heaven, and the second resurrection as the physical one. Thus, the first resurrection is the new birth of the converted person, while the second resurrection is the bodily resurrection. “All those who participate in the first resurrection also participate in the second resurrection, but not all those experiencing the second resurrection will have partaken of the first.”[14]

For over one thousand years, amillennialism was the predominant eschatological view. During the Middle Ages, however, Joachim de Fiore’s prophetical interpretation challenged amillennialism. He rejected the allegorical interpretation on which amillennialism is based, and, taking a literal approach to Revelation 20:1-6, divided history into three ages, corresponding to the three persons of the Trinity: the Old Testament (Adam to Uzziah, corresponding to the Father), the New Testament (Uzziah/8th century B.C. to St. Benedict, corresponding to the Son), and, respectively, the age of spiritual understanding (St. Benedict/6th century A.D., corresponding to the Holy Spirit). He located his time at the end of the second period, and suggested that God would send the two witnesses of Revelation 14:14-15 (which he understood to represent two orders of monks) to guide the church through the upcoming tribulation. Despite their work, the Antichrist would take over the church and render it an “instrument of evil.” The church would be freed by Christ at his second coming, which would be followed by a time of rest during the third age –that of the Holy Spirit. [15]

Another challenge to amillennialism during the medieval period was the widely accepted belief that Islam was the Antichrist, which led to a physical, literal battle against it. Christians who enrolled in the Crusades believed to be contributing to the fulfillment of end-time prophecies. Additionally, the famines and Black Death plaguing Europe were seen as pointers to God’s displeasure with the church, a herald of the soon second coming.

Like much of Christianity during the Middle Ages, the reformers adopted the amillennial view, speaking critically against the premillennial literal understanding. As with Augustine, this was largely due to their emphasis on the spiritual, over the materialism somewhat characteristic of the premillennial view. Two violent incidents arising under the Anabapatist reformation wing (an otherwise peaceful group) discredited premillenialism: Thomas Muntzer’s role in the Peasant’s war in 1525, and the Munster Rebellion in 1534-1535, wherein John of Leyden proclaimed himself the Messiah and instituted a theocracy. Both incidents reflect an extremist take on premillennialism, which led small groups of Christians to seeking the establishment of a golden millennium through violence.

During modernism, significant theologians, such as Charles Hodges, B.B. Warfield, and William G.T. Shedd, continued to advocate amillennialism, accusing premillennialism of being a “Jewish doctrine,” and for being inconsistent with the Bible.[16] Warfield’s explanation of the millennium’s symbolism became conventional during modernism. According to him, adding the two sacred numbers “seven” and “three” resulted in the number “ten,” which, when cubed into a thousand, symbolized the idea of completeness.[17]

Postmillennialism

Postmillennialism arose on the scene during the modern period with Daniel Whitby and Jonathan Edward. They saw the millennium in Revelation 20:1-6 as a time at the end of history when all people will convert to Christianity and the kingdom of God would be instituted on earth for a thousand years, after which Christ would return.

Postmillennialism involves a very optimistic view of the world. According to it, the gospel will reach the entire world towards the end of time, and all people will be saved. Evil will be banished, giving in to universal peace. The Jews shall be restored to their homeland, and the world will live through a millennium of peace and prosperity, at the end of which Jesus will return to judge the earth.[18]

In the postmillennial understanding of eschatology, the millennium –an indefinite period of time– has already begun, with a largely unnoticed onset. Rather than taking place sometimes in the future, the millennium is a “present reality, here and now.”[19] Christ, though physical absent from earth, reigns on this planet during the millennium.

A key aspect of postmillennialism is the preaching of the gospel, for which its proponents find Scriptural support in verses such as Psalms 47 and 72, Hosea 2:23, and Isaiah 45:22-25. Furthermore, a mission carried out in the power and authority of Jesus could only be successful. The key verse here is Matthew 24:14 and 28:18-20.[20]

This view was largely influenced by the early modern period’s prosperity and expansion, and led the church to get involved in significant social reforms, such as the abolition of slavery and women’s right to vote. The emphasis on the prophetic growing kingdom of God on earth also led to an expansion of preaching and evangelism.[21]

Less than a century later, however, pessimism overtook the postmillennial optimism. The Civil War in America, the failure of social reforms to yield the expected results, two world wars, as well as urbanization and industrialization, paved the way for the fourth major historical view of the millennium: dispensational premillennialism.[22]

Dispensational Premillennialism

Premillenialism was resurrected in the nineteenth century in conservative circles largely in reaction to the growth of liberalism, which had embraced postmillennialism.[23]  Additional factors contributing to its rise were the weakening of the Catholic Church’s influence in the wake of the French Revolution, and the promotion of dispensational premillennialism by prophetic conferences. The main proponents of dispensational premillennialism were John Nelson Darby, Plymouth Brethren, Dwight L. Moody, William Blackstone, and C.I. Scofield.

As the name suggests, this view has much in common with premillennialism. However, some key features are significantly different:

  • The church will be secretly removed from the earth and taken to heaven before the seven years of great tribulation. This event came to be known as “the rapture,” and is exegetically backed by 1 Thess. 4:17 (indicating the meeting of the saved with Christ in the air), 1 Thess. 5:9, and 1 Thess. 1:10 (both referring to the fact that God’s wrath will not be poured upon the believers). The rapture could occur at any moment, without any signs or warnings preceding it (Matt. 24:43, 25:13), as was the case with the flood (Matthew 24:36-39) and as illustrated in the parable of the wise and faithful servant (Matthew 24:45-51).[24]
  • The belief that the church is not the New Israel. Instead, the church and the literal Israel are two different groups of people with a particular role and destiny in the history of mankind. According to Darby, while the church is caught up with Christ in heaven before the tribulation, where it will receive the promised heavenly blessings, Israel would remain on earth during the tribulation, at the end of which it would be present here during Christ’s return when they receive the promised earthly blessings.[25] After Jesus descends to earth for the second time, He will “literally sit on David’s throne and rule the world from Jerusalem.”[26] Thus, the hope of the church is in the rapture, the time of which is unknown to any man, while the hope of Israel is their restoration to the Promised Land.
  • “All prophetic Scripture applying to the church was fulfilled in the first century.”[27] Thus, the work of the Antichrist does not take place just prior to the second coming.[28]

Thus, the optimistic postmillennialism was challenged by a negativistic view of the world that worsens as it approaches the end of time, giving way to dispensational premillennialism, which became the conventional teaching among evangelicals [29]

Adventism in Relation to Amillennialism, Postmillennialism, and Dispensational Premillennialism

Adventism has historically embraced classic premillenialism, although it did not understand the millennium of Christ’s reign to be significant primarily due to material blessings, but more so because of Christ being reunited with the church. Adventists, unlike some classical premillennialists, believe that the thousand years will be spent in heaven, not on earth. Its rejection of the other views results largely from the hermeneutics employed (the historical-grammatical method, as opposed to the historical-critical method prevalent especially during modernism, and the allegorical interpretation widespread during the first centuries of Christianity).

Adventists reads Revelation 20 contextually, placing great emphasis on its relation to the immediate context of the book of Revelation, as well as to the New Testament and the entire Canon. Such a hermeneutic prevents the two resurrections from meaning anything other than physical resurrections, and clearly differentiates between two groups of people –the saved and the unsaved– at the end of time.

Furthermore, the praeteristic understanding of prophecy, which places the fulfilment of all prophecy in the past, is rejected by Adventism, which instead holds to a historicist interpretation of prophecy. Thus, the work of the Antichrist, as well as the tribulation and the millennium, are yet to come. The great hope resides, not in a spiritual millennium on earth before Christ return, but in a literal fulfillment of Revelation 20:1-6 in the future.

The great controversy theme, particularly as expounded by the writings of Ellen White, supports the classic premillennialist view. The sequence of events she describes throughout her writings, and especially in the Great Controversy, indicate that the two resurrections will be physical, and that they refer to two different groups: the first to the saved, who are caught up with Christ and spend the millennium with Him, and the second to the lost, whom Christ returns a third time to punish before recreating the earth where He establishes the New Jerusalem as His capital.

Having a good understanding of the four major views on the millennium is helpful, not only in distinguishing our own beliefs from other conceptualizations, but in recognizing the great hope the Seventh-day Adventist church places on Christ’s return. With Christ by our side and in our hearts, we can go through tribulation in eager anticipation of His soon and certain return for us. The millennium will be but a first taste of an eternity with Christ, whose love for us has made possible the reconciliation between humanity and our Creator.

______

Notes:

[1] Greg. R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 683.

[2] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1983), 1105.

[3] Allison, 683-684.

[4] Church fathers who wrote about this are Cyprian, Hippolytus, and Justin Martyr. See Allison, 684-685.

[5] This is called a posttribulation position. See Allison, 685.

[6] Allison, 686.

[7] Erickson, 1110-1111.

[8] Erickson, 1118-1120.

[9] Erickson, 1120.

[10] Allison, 687.

[11] Erickson, 1113.

[12] Erickson, 1107.

[13] Allison, 688.

[14] Erickson, 1114.

[15] Allison, 689-690.

[16] Allison, 693.

[17] Erickson, 1113.

[18] Allison, 693-4; Erickson, 1107-1108.

[19] Erickson, 1108.

[20] Erickson, 1108.

[21] Allison, 694.

[22] Allison, 694.

[23] Erickson, 1110.

[24] Erickson, 1119.

[25] Allison, 695.

[26] Erickson, 1112.

[27] Erickson, 1118.

[28] Erickson, 1119.

[29] Allison, 695.

 

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Adelina Alexe is a Ph.D. student in systematic theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. She loves God and enjoys nature, arts, and meaningful conversation. Her special research interests are narrative theology and hermeneutics.