Last week, I wrote that we’d be looking at the three main viewpoints Christians have historically held regarding the return of Christ. I’m sure many of you immediately thought: “pre-, mid- or post-.” [These are slang expressions for different views concerning the rapture. If you aren't familiar with any of these terms, don't worry; we'll explain all of this in a couple of weeks.] But the rapture comes later in our study. There’s actually a bigger issue that has distinguished believers, and it has to do with the millennium.
“What’s a millennium?” you might ask. A millennium is simply a period of one thousand years. Remember Y2K and all the hysteria at the turn of the millennium, when we went from the 1900s to the 2000s? We went from one millennium into another. What does this have to with our Christian faith? Well, the Scriptures specifically refer to a thousand year period in Revelation 20:1-6:
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven with the key to the bottomless pit and a heavy chain in his hand. He seized the dragon—that old serpent, who is the devil, Satan—and bound him in chains for a thousand years. The angel threw him into the bottomless pit, which he then shut and locked so Satan could not deceive the nations anymore until the thousand years were finished. Afterward he must be released for a little while.
Then I saw thrones, and the people sitting on them had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony about Jesus and for proclaiming the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his statue, nor accepted his mark on their forehead or their hands. They all came to life again, and they reigned with Christ for a thousand years.
This is the first resurrection. (The rest of the dead did not come back to life until the thousand years had ended.) Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. For them the second death holds no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him a thousand years.
There’s some very striking, strange imagery in this passage, and we’ll sort through much of it later. But what is the nature of this thousand year period? Christians have historically held to three different viewpoints regarding this millennial period and how it relates to the return of Christ:
In the first few hundred years in the history of the church, there were certain, shared beliefs about the return of Christ that were predominant among the early Christian believers. They believed that Jesus’ return will be dramatic and obvious to all. They believed that when he returns, he will usher all of us into a golden era of peace, harmony, health and prosperity. They believed that he will directly reign—on earth—over this kingdom, and that we (his followers) will somehow share in his reign. According to this view Christ returns before this golden age, or millennium, so it’s known as the premillennial view.
Revelation is apocalyptic literature and contains a great amount of symbolism [see Revelation: The story comes full circle], so there were differences of opinion as to whether this millennial period will be a literal thousand years or not. But everyone agreed that it will be a real and extensive period of time with Christ present and reigning on earth. At the end of this time, God will establish a new heaven and new earth, and humanity will enter eternity (Revelation 21-22). Christians who hold this view have generally interpreted certain passages from the Old Testament prophets as referring to this millennial period, such as Isaiah 2:2-4, 11:6-9, and 65:20-25.
As you might guess, this is a belief that Christ will return after the millennium (hence the view is postmillennial). How did this view spread? Unfortunately, we have a tendency to go beyond the teachings of Scripture and add our own speculative ideas. The premillennial believers began to do this, at times suggesting some fairly strange ideas. The premillennial view also tended to emphasize the place of Israel in end times prophecy, and this was a problem for some. As the church became overwhelmingly Gentile, this Jewish emphasis was unappealing to many Christians. These factors likely encouraged some Christians to reject the predominant premillennial view.
Instead of the common understanding of the return of Christ, these believers stressed that the Gospel is to be carried throughout the earth. They believed that, as Christians spread the Gospel everywhere, the world will eventually be won for Christ (at least for the most part). They also believed that as society is influenced by the truth of Christ, that its institutions will be transformed, and there will be real renewal of government, justice, education, commerce, etc. As culture becomes more and more Christian, humanity will gradually enter this golden, millennial age of general, universal well-being (which will not be a literal thousand years). When this period of peace and harmony reaches its zenith, Christ will return in triumph.
At first, this view seemed to be held by only a small number of believers, but as Christianity was legalized in the Roman empire and then became a real power, the postmillennial view seemed to correspond to what was happening in history. The postmillennial view was adopted by most, and premillennialism was pushed to the fringes of the church. In the 19th century, with the heady successes of science and industry, and the optimistic feeling that humanity could now solve all of the problems that had seemed so intractable, postmillennialism was again a perfect match. Many proponents of liberal theology also embraced the postmillennial view.
But then the realism of the 20th century came crashing in: two horrific world wars, the threat of nuclear holocaust, oppressive dictatorships, genocide, famine, pollution, political corruption at the highest levels. The postmillennial view with its optimistic expectations of a continually improving world society all but died out. But the last few years, we’ve seen a resurgence of this view among certain groups of conservative (usually Reformed) Christians.
Those of you who love language may have already figured out the essence of this viewpoint. Let me show you what I mean. If something is moral, it’s good, right? If it’s immoral, that means it’s morally wrong. But if something is amoral, it means it doesn’t involve questions of right or wrong. When you decide whether to have chocolate or vanilla ice cream, this is an amoral choice; it doesn’t involve a question of what is morally right or wrong. This is the way we use the word amillennial. Those who hold to an amillenial view don’t believe in a literal millennial reign of Christ on the earth. They believe that, between Jesus’ first coming and his second coming, he reigns spiritually from heaven.
Beginning with early church teachers such as Origen, and later Augustine, many began to interpret biblical prophecies in a much less literal manner. They saw these prophecies as being fulfilled in a more spiritual, less concrete, way. [I'm using these descriptions in their popular sense, not as they're used in academic theology.] For instance, they believed that many of the Old Testament prophecies that seemed to be specifically intended for the people of Israel were actually fulfilled in the New Covenant people of God—the church. Because of this, they began to question the need for some golden age when God’s promises to the Jews would be literally fulfilled.
Many feel Augustine was the first to teach what would later be known as amillennialism. In much of church history, the amillennial viewpoint is often hard to distinguish from the postmillennial view. Neither believes that Christ will literally reign on earth for a thousand years. Both believe that when Christ returns he will immediately usher in the final age, universal resurrection and judgment, and our ultimate, eternal state. On the other hand, amillennial believers disagree with postmillennial Christians that the world will gradually become more and more Christianized.
After the disillusionment of the 20th century, many postmillennial believers adopted an amillennial perspective of the return of Christ. Today, most who are part of the Roman Catholic Church or the Eastern Orthodox Church are amillennial. Many who come from the older, mainline denominations (Lutheran, Reformed/Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist, etc.) are also amillennial, with a few postmillennial Christians here and there. Those who come from a free church, Baptist, Pentecostal or nondenominational tradition tend to be premillennial in their understanding of end times (although not exclusively so). Many premillennial Christians are even unaware that there are Bible-believing Christians who understand the return of Christ and the millennium differently than they do! They often don’t realize that the question of the timing of the rapture (pre-, mid- or post-)—which can be so consuming for the premillennial—is one that doesn’t really concern postmillennial or amillennial Christians.
This is just one blog post, and so I’ve had to be brief and even a little simplistic in the way I’ve described these views. There is much more rich detail for each of them, and if you’re interested I’d encourage you to do more reading on your own. A great place to begin is Millard Erickson’s excellent book A Basic Guide to Eschatology: Making Sense of the Millennium (although I suggest skipping the first two chapters and beginning with chapter three). Hopefully, you haven’t been able to tell from this post which view I personally hold. This week, I want to just introduce these beliefs and where they came from. Next week, we’ll spend a little more time exploring the nature of the millennium and evaluating these three viewpoints.
The return of Christ series:
Millennial match-up [see above]