Last week we looked at the three main viewpoints Christians hold concerning the return of Christ. This week we’re going to spend a little more time comparing and evaluating these beliefs. To make our discussion a bit easier, I’m going to abbreviate the names of these views to: premil, postmil, and amil. (If you don’t know what we’re talking about, it might be helpful to read last week’s post: Millennial match-up.)
Converting the world?
So how do we begin sorting out these views? Well, probably the most distinctive belief is the postmil view that the world will become more and more Christianized until it’s all essentially part of the Kingdom of God. Both premils and amils disagree with this. Do we see anything like this in Scripture?
It’s interesting that in books and articles presenting different views on Christ’s return, postmils rarely attempt to make a vigorous case from Scripture for their viewpoint. Instead, they usually appeal to a general optimism found in the Bible regarding Christ’s ultimate victory and the redemption of all creation. A big problem for them is that there are many passages that aren’t so optimistic about spiritual conditions before the return of Jesus:
Then you will be arrested, persecuted, and killed. You will be hated all over the world because you are my followers. And many will turn away from me and betray and hate each other. And many false prophets will appear and will deceive many people. Sin will be rampant everywhere, and the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And the Good News about the Kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, so that all the nations will hear it; and then the end will come.
You should know this, Timothy, that in the last days there will be very difficult times. For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly.
2 Timothy 3:1-5
This doesn’t sound much like the Kingdom of God on earth! No wonder Jesus asked, “But when the Son of Man returns, how many will he find on the earth who have faith [Luke 18:8]?” Of course, just because most Christians reject this postmil viewpoint doesn’t mean we don’t seek to be salt and light in the world around us and to do everything we can to be a positive influence in our society. We want the world to be as affected by Christ, through his church, as possible. But we can’t expect to completely transform the world when Scripture hasn’t given us this charge. And we need to beware the real danger of seeking to establish the Kingdom through our own human efforts. This can all too easily lead to abuses of power and ungodly, coercive methods.
What kind of resurrections?
So what about the differences between the premil and amil views? The main distinction hinges on the interpretation of this Scripture:
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 for a thousand years.
The natural way to read this is to see both resurrections as essentially the same thing, only one resurrection is before the thousand years and one is after. The passage seems to be describing physical resurrection from the dead. First those who are in Christ are resurrected at his return to be with him, and then those who have rejected Christ are resurrected to stand before God in judgment.
If we read the passage this way, it leads naturally to a premil understanding of the return of Christ. The first resurrection is of Christ’s followers who have died and occurs when he returns; the second resurrection (of those who did not follow Christ) is after the intervening millennial period. This interpretation presents a problem for those who hold to an amil view because it includes a thousand year period between the return of Christ and the final resurrection and judgment. This is what we call the millennium—which is precisely what amils do not believe in.
So how do amil believers interpret this passage? Generally, they understand the first resurrection to be a spiritual resurrection and the second one, after the thousand years, to be a physical resurrection. (Remember they see this thousand years as being symbolic of the current age between Christ’s first coming and his second coming, not a future period of time after Christ’s return.) They believe the first resurrection equals salvation, which is occurring now, and the second is the physical resurrection from the dead that will occur when Jesus returns.
The problem is this interpretation has to be read into the Scripture. There’s just nothing here to indicate that the second resurrection is a completely different kind than the first. The same wording is used for both, and they are specifically connected in the passage as first resurrection and subsequent resurrection. What in the text indicates any difference between these resurrections?
We’re told that some “came to life again” before the thousand years, and the “rest of the dead did not come back to life until the thousand years were ended.” It’s hard to see how we’re supposed to understand these dead as being dead in different ways and then coming back to life in different ways. Again, what in the text would indicate such a difference? Instead, by numbering them (“first resurrection”) the passage points to them being the same thing, only occurring at different times. Henry Alford famously protested this manufacturing of differences with no textual basis. If we can just decide that, in the same passage, the first resurrection (dead coming to life) means something different than the second resurrection (dead coming to life), then “there is an end of all significance in language, and Scripture is wiped out as a definite testimony to anything.”
(A related issue is the question of Satan. According to Revelation 20:1-3, Satan is bound and locked away during the thousand years. If the thousand years is a metaphor for the current period of time between Christ’s first coming and his second, can we really say Satan has been bound and imprisoned this whole time? If so, how can he be “prowl[ing] around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour [1 Peter 5:8]”?)
How does God keep his promises?
Another issue that sometimes divides premils and amils is how we view the fulfillment of certain Old Testament prophecies. Amils see the promises God made to Israel as all being fulfilled in the church. Premils see some Old Testament prophecies fulfilled in the church but not all. They would distinguish between promises made to God’s people and promises made specifically to the ethnic people of Israel. Many of the prophecies regarding God’s people in general have indeed been fulfilled in the church. (I’ll write more on this in the future and give examples.) But there are many prophecies made specifically to the nation of Israel that still await fulfillment.
Premils anticipate that God will someday finish his work with the people of Israel and fulfill all of the Old Testament prophecies regarding them as an ethnic people. Some of these prophecies may be fulfilled in an expanded way, but not in such a way as to fail to fulfill the original prophecy. As Darrell Bock has said, God can give more than he promised, but he won’t give less. Amils tend to deny any special significance to the literal people of Israel in the context of Christ’s return, which is ironic considering everything that’s happened in the Middle East the past 65 years.
Why a millennium?
Sometimes critics of the premil view ask, “Why do we need a millennium?” This period of time seems like an unnecessary pause between the return of Christ and the final judgment and eternal state. The implication seems to be that a millennium doesn’t really accomplish anything important. Is this true? Scripture doesn’t describe the purpose of the millennium, so answering this challenge requires us to do a little biblically-informed speculating.
According to the premil view, when Christ returns he will establish his Kingdom (or his rule) throughout the earth. He will enact universal justice and bestow peace and harmony to all. This will be a time of healing and renewal for human society (and for the earth itself). There will still be nations, and people will still work, marry and have children. But it will be life the way it could have been all along if we had only done things God’s way instead of ours. The millennium seems to be a beautiful time of demonstrating God’s wisdom to us, to the angels and whoever else is watching. Jesus will step in before we destroy ourselves and show us all the way it was supposed to be.
There’s an old MTV commercial warning viewers about the dangers of drugs. We see a hand holding an egg. “This is your brain,” the voiceover tells us. Then we see the egg being fried in a pan. “This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” It was very simply done, and very effective. Toward the end of the millennium, Satan will be released and allowed to sway some people to revolt against the Kingdom of God (Revelation 20:7-10). This rebellion will be swiftly crushed. but it will provide one last lesson. “Here is my way for you to live. And here is life in opposition to me. Any questions?”
Whole books have been written on these different views of the millennium and Christ’s return. I’ve tried to cover the basics, and to explain why I hold a premillennial view. If you want to do more studying, I’d be happy to recommend books from all the respective viewpoints. Next week, we’ll begin discussing the rapture.
The return of Christ series:
More on the millennium [see above]