Prof. Engelsma is professor emeritus of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: December 1, 2008, p. 132.
With the subject of the millennium, we turn from “personal eschatology” (the truth of the intermediate state of the believer) to “cosmic,” or “general,” eschatology. The intermediate state concerns the end of the believer personally at death. The subject of the millennium begins the treatment of the end of the human race, of history, and of the present form of the universe in the second coming of Jesus Christ. Of course, the believer also participates in cosmic eschatology, not only because during his life he observes the signs of Christ’s coming and lives in the hope of this coming, but also because at the coming of Christ his body will be raised, he will be judged in the final judgment, and he will inherit the new world with all the elect church.
In treating the millennium first, I deliberately differ from the usual order of the treatment of cosmic eschatology by Reformed theologians. The usual order has the treatment of the precursory signs (the signs of Christ’s coming and of the end of the world) preceding the treatment of the millennium. Having explained the intermediate state, Herman Hoeksema at once proceeds to an explanation of the precursory signs with special attention paid to the Antichrist. Only then does he take up the subject of the millennium.¹ Louis Berkhof follows the same order, as does the more recent book on eschatology by Cornelis P. Venema.²
The reasons for treating the millennium at the very beginning of cosmic eschatology, before taking up the subject of the precursory signs, are, first, that, rightly understood, the millennium of Revelation 20 is the entire period from Christ’s ascension to the time immediately preceding His return. Chronologically, it is proper and defensible to take up the matter of the millennium at the very outset of the treatment of cosmic eschatology.
Second, one’s view of the precursory signs depends upon his conception of the millennium. Because of their erroneous doctrine of the millennium, both the postmillennialist and the premillennialist deny that there are precursory signs for the church. According to the premillennialist, Christ will come for the church saints in the rapture “at any moment” without any signs or warning. Such events as the rising of Antichrist and the great tribulation will occur after the saints have been removed from the world. The postmillennialist, on the other hand, holds that the signs have taken place in the past, either at the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 or in the persecution of the early church by the Roman empire.
Only the Reformed amillennialist maintains that there are signs of the coming of Christ for the church in the twenty-first century. This distinctive position regarding the signs depends squarely upon his understanding of the millennium.
Third, not only does one’s doctrine of the precursory signs depend upon his view of the millennium, but also one’s doctrine of the second coming of Christ itself is significantly affected by his understanding of the millennium. Because of his doctrine of the millennium, the dispensational premillennialist teaches two future comings of Christ, one coming for the church in the secret rapture and another visible coming to set up the earthly kingdom of the Jews, seven years after the rapture.
The postmillennialist looks for one coming of Christ in the body in the future, but that postmillennial coming will not be the deliverance of the beleaguered church from sin and from the persecuting Antichrist. Rather, it will be Christ’s appearance to a church that has already accomplished the earthly victory and supreme, if not final, realization of the messianic kingdom and is now living comfortably in earthly peace, prosperity, and power. The implication is that the church in the world never has a burning longing for Christ’s return. Christ’s return is not her one, intense hope. Prior to the millennium, the church in the world is longing for the millennium. During the millennium, the church will be contentedly enjoying the full realization of the kingdom of Christ.
Reformed dogmatics must establish the right doctrine of the millennium, and expose the errors of both forms of millennialism, at the very outset of its treatment of cosmic eschatology.
In itself, the biblical truth of the millennium is of comparatively little importance. The attention paid to it and the space devoted to it in dogmatics and other theological writings are disproportionate to its own intrinsic significance. The millennium is merely one of the many elements of the book of Revelation’s symbolical instruction concerning the last days.
The millennium is mentioned in only one passage of Scripture: Revelation 20:1-10. Six times the passage speaks of a period of a “thousand years.” Verse two has Satan being bound “a thousand years.” According to verse three the purpose of the binding of Satan is that Satan not deceive the nations anymore, “till the thousand years should be fulfilled.” After that, Satan must be “loosed a little season.” Verse four reveals that certain souls live and reign with Christ “a thousand years.” Verse five adds that the rest of the dead do not live until the “thousand years” are finished. Upon those who thus reign with Christ “a thousand years,” verse six pronounces a blessing. Verse seven prophesies that at the expiration of the “thousand years” Satan will be loosed to deceive the nations, so that Gog and Magog attack the camp of the saints and the beloved city.
The Latin for “thousand years” is “mille anni,” whence “millennium.” Revelation 20:7 reads in the Latin (which was, of course, the language of the church for many ages): “Et cum consummati fuerint mille anni, solvetur satanas de carcere suo” (“And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison”).
The Greek for “thousand years” is _______________ (ta chilia etay). Revelation 20:7 reads in the Greek: _______________.” Therefore, those who teach a literal thousand-year period in the future during which Jesus Christ will reign over the restored nation of Israel are known as “chiliasts.”
Despite the comparative insignificance of the millennium as merely one of many symbolical elements of the book of Revelation, the topic has come to have great, even decisive, importance for the whole of eschatology, forcing Reformed dogmatics to treat it at length. This is due to the fact that serious errors have attached themselves to the modest mention of the millennium in Revelation 20. There is misunderstanding of the thousand years. The millennium is controversial. In the controversies, grave theological issues are at stake, including the unity of the covenant in Old and New Testaments; the fulfillment of Old Testament Israel in the New Testament church; the right interpretation of Old Testament prophecy, whether literal/carnal or figurative/spiritual; the calling of the church, whether the “Christianizing” of the world or the saving of the elect church (including the sanctified lives of the members in all areas of human life and all spheres of creation); and the nature of the earthly future for the church and the elect believer, whether the struggle and suffering of tribulation culminating in the Antichrist or the earthly peace, prosperity, and power of a “golden age,” or the escape from tribulation of a “rapture.”
The issue of the nature of the earthly future for the church points out that what is at stake in the controversies over the millennium is nothing less than the Christian hope. Is the “blessed hope” of the church and of the individual child of God (Titus 2:13) a carnal kingdom of Christ within the future history of this world, whether before the second coming of Christ (postmillennialism) or after the second coming of Christ (premillennialism)? Or, is the one, blessed hope of the church and of the believer the second coming of Christ as the end of the history of this world and the perfected, spiritual kingdom of Christ that will be reared up in the new creation and that will be everlasting (amillennialism)?
The various views in the debate should be identified in a preliminary way at the outset of the study of the millennium. Basically, the error is millennialism: the doctrine that there will be a more-or-less literal fulfillment of the thousand years of Revelation 20 in the future, within the present history of this world. The significance of this millennial age will be the realization of the kingdom of Christ in an earthly form—large numbers of Christians, likely a majority of the human race, and earthly peace, power, and prosperity. According to millennialism, there will be a carnal victory of the church or of the kingdom of Christ within history.
By a “carnal” victory of the church (postmillennialism) or of the Messianic kingdom (dispensational premillennialism), in distinction from a “spiritual” victory, I mean great, if not superior, numbers; social, political, and economic power; earthly ease, riches, and general well-being; and physical health and security. In short, the carnal victory of the church or of the Messianic kingdom dreamed of by the millennialists is that which the Jews craved of Jesus in John 6.
I speak of a “more-or-less” literal fulfillment of the thousand-year period because some postmillennialists envision a period of many thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of years during which the church will dominate in the world. David Chilton has written, “This world has tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of years of increasing godliness ahead of it, before the Second Coming of Christ.”³ Chilton was echoing the older postmillennial writer, Loraine Boettner: “The Millennium to which the Postmillennialist looks forward…is an indefinitely long period of time, perhaps much longer than a literal one thousand years.” Boettner then suggested a millennium of as many as two hundred thousand years.4
Millennialism takes two distinct forms, although there are variations within the forms. Postmillennialism teaches that Christ will come again after the millennium. Premillennialism insists that Christ will return to this world, personally and visibly, before the millennium. The prefixes, post- and pre-, refer to the second coming of Christ with respect to the millennium.
The orthodox, confessional Reformed view is commonly described as amillennialism. This name, which is too entrenched to be changed, is unfortunate, if not objectionable. First, it implies that Reformed eschatology is millennial like the others, only of a different stripe. This is a mistake, as the prefix, “a-,” makes clear. “A-” in the label, “amillennialism,” means ‘not.’ Reformed orthodoxy is not millennial in its doctrine of the last things. Rather, it is anti-millennial. Thus, it differs radically from the other two views of the millennium.
Second, however, for the Reformed faith to call itself amillennial, or to accept the description from others, involves the Reformed faith in at least the appearance of a contradiction of Scripture. How can a faith that claims to be biblical be anti-millennial when Revelation 20 obviously teaches a millennium?
Third, acceptance of the name amillennialism tends to cause even the Reformed believer to think of his belief as one option among three, all of which are legitimate theories of the last days, so that every Christian is at liberty to choose his own preference. There may then be some friendly sparring among the advocates of the three positions, but all unfriendly charges of false doctrine are ruled out. This is the thrust of the volume, The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views. In his introduction to the book, editor Robert G. Clouse assures the reader that “each of the systems which have been briefly mentioned in historic context has had devout evangelical Christian adherents.”5 The truth is that the orthodox Reformed doctrine of the millennium in particular and of eschatology in general—the doctrine known as “amillennialism”—condemns, or ought to condemn, both basic forms of millennialism as false doctrines.
Fourth, the name amillennialism is negative, indicating rejection of millennialism, when, in fact, the Reformed faith’s explanation of the thousand years of Revelation and the Reformed faith’s doctrine of the last days in light of this explanation are essentially positive.
If usage demands that we refer to our doctrine of the last days, in light of a sound interpretation of the millennium of Revelation 20, as amillennialism (and usage does demand this), let it be clear that we do so grudgingly, only in order to be understood. Let it be clear also that amillennialism only intends to deny those explanations of the millennium of Revelation 20 that make the millennium a more-or-less literal period in the future, within present history, during which the kingdom of Christ is realized in an earthly form, whether as a carnally triumphant church or as a carnally victorious Jewish nation.
Basic to amillennialism is the positive conception of the New Testament kingdom of Christ, fulfilling Old Testament prophecy, as heavenly and spiritual, not earthly and carnal.
¹ Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics (RFPA, 1966), 772-829.
² Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Eerdmans, 1965), 695-719; Cornelis P. Venema, The Promise of the Future (Banner of Truth, 2000), 79-360.
³ David Chilton, Paradise Restored: A Biblical Theology of Dominion (Dominion Press, 1985), 221, 222.
4 Loraine Boettner, The Millennium (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1958), 14, 136.
5 The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, ed. Robert G. Clouse (InterVarsity Press, 1977), 13.