With the current issue of Christianity Today featuring a prominent Evangelical pastor, David Jang, who many within his inner circle purportedly claim to be the second coming of Christ (you can read the article here), I have been inspired to write a brief treatise regarding the strengths and weaknesses of each of the main millennial eschatological systems students of scripture have espoused over the past 2,000 years. (Note: I make a distinction in this paper between classical premillennialism and hyper-dispensational premillennialism.)
Many find rather curious the fact that whole systems of doctrine have been developed based on when the thousand year reign of Christ begins and ends. This is because only one chapter in the entire Bible even mentions the thousand year reign of Christ (Revelation 20).
Those who espouse premillennialism take this chapter literally and believe that Christ is going to physically reign from Jerusalem for 1,000 years after His second bodily return to the earth, which happens several years after the church is raptured (caught up to heaven) and the Great Tribulation (Matthew 24:21-30) begins (although some believe in a mid-tribulation rapture of the church).
Those who espouse postmillennialism also believe in a physical, literal reign of Christ on the earth (although many don’t take the 1,000 years literally and believe it is just an expression that means a very long time, i.e. 2 Peter 3:8). However, they believe the rapture will take place after the church has manifested a kingdom witness in the nations of the world and have somehow been involved in putting Jesus’ enemies under His feet (Psalm 110:1-3) by discipling the nations (Matthew 28:19; Romans 11:25) which will bring the salvation of Israel (Romans 11:26) resulting in the restoration of all things (Acts 3:21) and then ushers in the second bodily return of Christ (Acts 1:11).
Many postmillennial also believe that many of the events prophesied by Jesus in Matthew 24, Luke 21, Mark 13 and the book of Revelation have already been fulfilled. Partial preterism, for the most part, teaches that everything except the physical bodily return of Christ, as well as many believing in a future restoration of Israel to God, have been fulfilled. Full preterism believes there are no more prophecies yet to be fulfilled because all of the prophecies were predicting judgment upon Israel and the removal of the levitical system of ceremonial laws and animal sacrifices, which Jesus said would be fulfilled in that generation (Matthew 24:34) for rejecting Him, which literally happened when the Romans sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and stopped the animal sacrifices of the levitical priesthood in AD 70. This would explain why so many New Testament passages speak about the last days as though they were imminent: because the NT writers were not speaking about the last days of the world but of the nation of Israel and/or the ceremonial sacrifices of the Old Testament.
Preterists also point readers to the writings of Jewish historian Josephus, who described the horrible tribulation the Jews went through for several years during the Roman siege of Jerusalem, which many point to as the Great Tribulation that Jesus mentions in Matthew 24. For more on the unique pre-AD 70 dating of the book of Revelation and partial preterism, which presently only has a minority but growing number of scholars, refer to Last Days Madness by Gary DeMar, Before Jerusalem Fell by Kenneth Gentry, as well as Days of Vengeance by David Chilton.
Finally, amillennialists believe the thousand year reign of Christ is totally spiritual and began with the ascension of Christ and the birth of the church in Acts 2. Some in this system also believe everything was already fulfilled (full preterism) and some make allowances for a future antichrist and second bodily return of Christ. But, for the most part, they believe the kingdom is already here (Colossians 1:13) because Christ is already reigning with His church in heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6-8) and that Jesus doesn’t need political affirmation or congruity from this world to be considered reigning; He already is King of Kings with or without the consent of the people of the earth! (Of course, there is much truth in this belief as well.)
All the main millennial positions believe that, to some extent, the kingdom has already come through Christ spiritually in our hearts (Luke 17:21; Colossians 1:12-13; John 3:3-6) and that the church has already positionally been raised together with Christ in heavenly places (Romans 6:1-10; Ephesians 2:4-6). But the major differences have to do with the timing and nature of how to interpret the thousand year reign of Christ spoken of in Revelation 20:1-6.
I have been a student of the word of God since 1978. During at least part of that time I have given myself to study, among other doctrines, eschatology (the study of the last things).
Personally, I have run the whole gamut, from espousing hyper-dispensational pre-tribulation, premillennialism to classical premillennialism (my position when I wrote my first book Ruling in the Gates) to my current position in which I lean towards postmillennialism.
I have spent time studying each major millennial position (premillennialism, postmillennialism and amillennialism) and have found strengths and weaknesses with each view. I have also come to find there are numerous varieties and expressions within each view depending on the school of thought and the innovative thinking of a particular proponent. I have also found that, in my opinion, there are uncertainties or hermeneutical (interpretive) challenges within each position. Thus, we have to be humble and open regarding a person’s view, and we must always leave room for further discussion and broader thinking within our own school of thought.
I lean towards postmillennialism because I think that system lines up easiest behind the macro-biblical narrative of the victorious eschatological view of the major covenants starting with Genesis 1:28 (the Cultural Commission, in which we are called to have dominion) continuing to Matthew 28:19 which many consider the New Testament equivalent of Genesis 1:28 given by the second Adam, Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:45).
Furthermore, in my opinion, all of scripture seems to fit a victorious progression of the kingdom throughout history, especially if our starting point is the original covenant of creation (Genesis 1:28). The progressive victory of this original covenant then illuminates other major covenants and promises to the seed of God, promises such as: all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Genesis 12:3); your seed will possess the gates of your enemies (Genesis 22:17-18); of the increase of His government and peace there shall be no end (Isaiah 9:7). This lines up completely with New Testament promises, especially the parables of the kingdom in Matthew 13: 31-33 in which Jesus seems to promote the idea of a progressive influence of the kingdom instead of a defeated church that is caught up into heaven before Jesus returns physically to the earth again. There are also many other scriptures that point to a victorious historical futuristic church that are too numerous to get into in this brief paper.
However, honestly speaking, although I believe the postmillennial system seems to fit the macro theme of scripture the easiest, that is not to say that every passage dealing with the last days from a partial preterist position is always easy to interpret. (I believe most of them are quite easy when you understand this system of doctrine.) There are some difficult passages in which we must read the context carefully to tell whether (in this system of interpretation) it is speaking about the last days of Israel or about the second bodily return of Christ.
Furthermore, in each millennial position the biggest challenge is to remain true to the literal, historical-grammatical methodology of biblical interpretation while at the same time knowing when a Hebrew idiom, metaphor, symbol, or saying is being used, whether it is poetry, or even biblical hyperbole. (Hyperbole is when an author writes something extreme to make a literary point. For example, in Psalm 18 instead of David merely saying God answered his prayers he speaks of God coming down to heaven, riding on a cherub with smoke coming out of his nostrils. Many debate whether this is poetic writing describing a dramatic answer to prayer or whether this literally describes how God answered David’s prayer).
There are also many passages in the Old Testament that give interpreters of all positions interpretive challenges with no easy, settled answers. For example: Zechariah 14 and Ezekiel’s temple in Ezekiel 40-48 to name a few that have various interpretations, even within those who have the same millennial position! Those with a postmillennial view have to interpret much of Zechariah 14 as already being fulfilled using more of a symbolic method of interpretation; those who espouse premillennialism have to explain how (in both Zechariah and Ezekiel) they can have a temple with animal sacrifices and observance of the ceremonial law after Jesus returns, which is contrary to the teachings of Galatians, Colossians and especially Hebrews, which strictly forbid going back to ceremonial law and animal sacrifices.
When it comes to interpreting Old Testament passages about Israel: For the most part I defer to the New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament instead of vice versa. This means I view the church as the tabernacle of David that was fallen down (this is what James said in Acts 15:13-19) and as the newly formed Israel of God (Paul said this in Galatians 4:25-26; 6:16) and as equal and/or connected to the heavenly Jerusalem and Mount Zion (Hebrews 12:22-24). This then gives me (in my opinion) the ability to interpret various Old Testament promises in light of the church instead of waiting for the national conversion of Israel to fulfill them (for example, Isaiah 2:1-4; Micah 4:1-5), although it seems plain to me that some passages do predict a full restoration of the nation of Israel (Romans 11:26).
To complicate this even further, it is actually possible to hold to this victorious eschatological view with a classical premillennial system (albeit not with a hyper-dispensational premillennial system, which depends on the world becoming worse and worse leading to the church being caught up to heaven before the appearance of the Antichrist to allow the 144,000 Jewish evangelists to preach the gospel to the nations before the second bodily return of Christ).
Obviously, I am using broad strokes here and am not getting into all the varieties and subsets of each system (within dispensationalism there are numerous subsets and varieties; some may even be very similar to non-dispensational views). But for the sake of space I am simplifying everything and not getting into technical biblical minutia and all related passages.
The following are the strengths and weaknesses of each of the main eschatological millennial systems based on my observation and experience and limited point of view.
Classical premillennialism, which is a very common view within the church since its inception, believes that many things taught by Jesus in Matthew 24, Luke 21, and Mark 13 are yet to take place. However, many believe in the law of double reference in which they believe these passages speak both of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 as well as pointing to the future, as does the book of Revelation. They don’t all necessarily believe in a rapture before the coming of the antichrist. (The pre-tribulation rapture doctrine is largely new to church history, having been introduced about the year 1830.) They can also believe in a victorious church. Thus, they are not limited by a belief that they have to wait for the conversion of Israel before the nations can be discipled and reformed for God.
One strength of this view (and the hyper-dispensational view) is that it clearly teaches that no human institution (including the church) is ever going to create a utopian (perfect) society; we need the Lord Jesus to come to the earth before a perfect society can come.
Hence, this keeps adherents depending on God for salvation and total reformation. Also, their ultra-literal approach to scripture tends to keep them more on the conservative side of biblical belief.
In my opinion, the main weakness of this system is that it is not as easy to connect all the victorious eschatological passages with the church. Thus, it can possibly result in some church leaders not attempting to disciple and reform nations and cities, and to just focus on spiritual things.
Among some of the strengths is their commitment to evangelize and love both Jews and the nation of Israel due to their eschatological system (Daniel 9:24-27) teaching that God’s time clock for the kingdom was stopped when Israel rejected Christ, and is awaiting the Jews to get back in the game, so to speak, before Christ can return and save the world.
Those with this position also hold to a very literal position in biblical interpretation and usually stay with a conservative posture regarding scripture and biblical inspiration.
Sometimes our greatest strengths are also our greatest weaknesses. In this system the church seems to be second-class citizens (a parenthetical thought according to their interpretation of Daniel 9:24-27) awaiting a time when the Jews are converted and begin to evangelize the world (many interpret Revelation 7:1-9 as the 144,000 Jews who convert to Christ and then go out and evangelize the earth before the return of Messiah to rule on the earth). Thus, the church is theoretically in a holding pattern without the faith to disciple the nations because they believe their destiny rests in the hands of the Jews, who when converted will start God’s final time clock again.
(For most of church history before the mid-nineteenth century most of the church interpreted Daniel 9:24-27 as already fulfilled in the sacrificial atonement of Christ and the birth and establishing of the church. Some say the 70 weeks of Daniel ended with the conversion of Paul the apostle three years after Pentecost.)
Finally, many in this system are constantly looking for signs of the end of the world and fall into the trap of attempting to interpret the Bible and prophecies in light of current events instead of the Reformation (and Antiochian) hermeneutic of interpreting scripture with scripture. As a result, we get whacky expositions of certain Old Testament passages and the book of Revelation (for example: in one book by Hal Lindsey the locusts of Revelation 9 are taught to be the latest military helicopter the USA created). This can result in eisegesis (individual and subjective biblical interpretations) instead of exegesis (discovering the biblical authors’ original intent and/or meaning in the text) and even numerology (in which interpreters attempt to use the number equivalent of the Hebrew alphabet to predict future events).
Furthermore, many opponents of Christianity have attempted to prove Jesus and the apostles (and thus scripture) were uninspired and in error because they falsely believed that the end of the world was near; 2,000 years later the world is still here. This is opposed to the partial preterist view which has a nice answer to this accusation.
Many great leaders with this dispensational millennial view (Jerry Falwell, I think also Pat Robertson, and many great leaders I know in New York City) have in the last several decades done much to reform our nation and their respective communities. (Although I believe if one is truly committed to a hyper-dispensational view it is not as easy to be motivated to do this). However, in my reading of church history, my opinion is that the overemphasis on the rapture, figuring out who the antichrist is, discerning when the great tribulation will start, and waiting for the world to end have resulted in the church largely abandoning culture, which began in the 1880’s. This led to a fundamentalist dualism (that only spiritual things are important) and irrelevancy regarding societal reform resulting in allowing ungodly humanistic leaders to fill in the gaps and take over the elite systems of culture (music, art , media, science, education , politics). This is the primary reason I jettisoned this eschatological view in 1995, after 17 years of studying and teaching it.
The main strength of postmillennialism is that it takes the Cultural Commission of Genesis 1:28 seriously, which motivates adherents to not only win individual souls but to restore cities (Isaiah 61:3-4) and disciple nations (Matthew 28:19). This results in much political activism and nurturing of world-class leaders who will influence every cultural mountain for God.
(Since I lean towards this particular millennial view I will be the hardest on this position because I want to make sure I am as fair as can be regarding all positions.)
The main weakness of this view is the danger of becoming utopian; that is to say, the belief that the church will bring in a perfect society before the Lord comes. In fairness, I have only met a few unstable folks who hold this extreme utopian view and actually believe the fullness of the kingdom will come before Jesus reigns. But most (like myself) believe the church will have a strong kingdom witness in the nations of the earth (whatever that means I don’t know exactly; scripture is not clear regarding this) before the return of Christ so that He will return for a glorious church (Ephesians 5:27), not a defeated church.
Utopianism causes irrational and illogical behavior, and has caused great harm on the earth. For example, Karl Marx and his communist revolutions had utopian goals through communism and dialectical materialism.
Furthermore, this theological view pressures a person to engage culture so as to contribute to the progressive influence of the gospel in every nation to hasten the coming of the Lord. Thus, a person can lose their theological balance and replace piety with activism, substitute intense prayer and fasting for political engagement, as well as trying to be so relevant in culture they become judgmental of the body of Christ for being too religious and irrelevant, demeaning the church and replacing it with marketplace involvement and even mobile churches (when their church is their place of business or family prayer gathering).
Feeling the pressure to be politically and culturally relevant can also open up a pastor/leader to the temptation of compromising the gospel so they can have access to more political power and stand with the cultural elites, all in the name of fulfilling the Cultural Mandate of Genesis 1:28. This results in more and more liberalism in their methodological approach to church as well as possibly a more liberal interpretation of scripture so as not to offend their newfound secular political and cultural friends.
Hence, postmillennial challenges are the opposite of hyper-dispensational premillennial challenges. That is to say, while the hyper-dispensational view can lead to cultural irrelevancy, the postmillennial view can lead to societal acculturation and even liberalism if it is taken to the extreme without proper theological balance.
Finally, some postmillennials are full preterists (which partial preterism is one step away from if interpreters are not careful and not in dialogue with other grounded students of the word). Full preterists don’t believe any biblical prophecies are left to be fulfilled in the future. This can also lead to mysticism and over-spiritualizing everything in scripture relating to the end of time to the point that they have no motivation to reform society, disciple the nations or fulfill the Cultural Commission of Genesis 1:28. This could lead to inactivity related to politics and culture, and being agnostic regarding the restoration of Israel back to Christ as found in Romans 11:26.
(Also refer to my article “Seven Psychological and Theological Challenges for Those Promoting the Kingdom in Culture”)
One of the greatest strengths of this position is its adherents don’t need Christ to reign on the earth politically in order to fully appreciate His rule and reign as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. They rightly believe that Jesus doesn’t need or depend on human political power or acclaim in order to manifest His kingdom rule in the cosmos.
This also enables amillennialists to have the ability to understand the dual kingdom dynamics of this world in which the City of God and the City of Man operate side-by-side (refer to St Augustine’s book of that name). They feel no theological pressure to convert the nations because the kingdom is already here spiritually. They can more easily deal with dissonance and be at peace in the midst of a polytheistic culture because they have it settled in their hearts that nothing that happens in the world will affect the true cosmic reign of Christ.
Because they totally spiritualize the reign of Christ and believe His thousand year reign (Revelation 20) is spiritual, they may have a hard time reconciling this view with obeying the Cultural Commission of Genesis 1:28 and other commands such as in Matthew 5:13-16 in which Jesus commands believers to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
This view can also lead to mysticism and irrelevancy in which practical engagement with society is not necessary except of course when it comes to individuals following the Great Commandment of loving our neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40 and 1 Corinthians 13).
Because they feel no obligation to contribute to the progression of cultural kingdom influence in the earth (as in Matthew 13:31-33) that will help prepare the earth for the return of Christ, it may be theologically harder to motivate them to engage the world politically, financially and socially, and it may result in mysticism rather than true spirituality.
In conclusion, in writing this paper with such a broad brush I take a real risk in offending some of my friends and fellow saints who espouse one of these millennial views and do not share the same exact theological interpretation of scripture I have presented and/or the same view regarding the various strengths and weaknesses of each position.
If anything, one of my goals for this paper is to promote greater respect for each view as well as create discussion regarding this important subject, because so much of the church is biblically illiterate regarding the doctrine of the last things, thus making many susceptible to false christs, prophecies, and extreme eschatological conclusions.