Friday, June 27, 2008

Premil Problems? Part 2

I am a premillennialist. I guess I should say that I am a premillennialist by default - it's all I have ever been taught. I was reared in the thought in my home church(es) and taught the system in seminary. I was trained to study the Bible with a historical-grammatical interpretive method and to interpret the Bible with a literal hermeneutic. With that said, I'll have to admit that I've never really thought that deeply about the millennium - it seems to just come with the territory of being a Baptist. Oh, to be sure, I've taught on the subject but I mostly went to sympathetic theologians and presented the material I've always known.

However, I never want to be wed to a system (I know those out there who know me as a Calvinist are having a big laugh right now but I truly mean those words). I want to be submissive to the word of God, which is why I rather reluctantly became more Calvinistic in my theology back in late 2000-early 2001. I didn't intend to become a Calvinist. I didn't want to be a Calvinist. My life would be a lot easier and simpler if I was not a Calvinist. However, I just see these particular doctrines present everywhere in Scripture so my submission to the Scriptures demands that I be a Calvinist.

What does this have to do with the millennium? Well, when I read some words in Scripture the other day during my time with God, it forced me to think about the millennium for the first time in a long time. I was in Matthew 13 and reading about the Kingdom of God. I'll tell you all about that in the next post. For now, let me lay down some initial thoughts.

In discussing the millennium, one’s first thought is to go to the Revelation because the 20th chapter of Revelation is the only place in the entire Bible that explicitly mentions the millennium. Differing theological positions approach this disputed passage in widely disparate ways and quickly call the other approaches bad names.

The premillennial view states that it is the only view that takes the Bible literally and claims that the amillennialists are "spiritualizers" or even "liberal." The amillennialists claim that they do take the Bible literally, meaning they literally interpret the Bible as it was meant to be interpreted and that the premillers are escapists. Both claim the postmillennialists are overly optimistic wishful thinkers with their heads in the clouds.

Here is the passage from Revelation 20:
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.

Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection.

Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.

And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.
So, as I said, a few questions came to mind after reading that passage in Matthew (and others) and the passage in Revelation. Before we get to those passages and the questions they raised in my mind, I have two thoughts that I think one must keep in mind when studying eschatology in general and the Revelation in particular:

1) The Revelation is an apocalyptic book. It also has prophecies and sections that qualify as epistle. However, it is apocalyptic for the most part. We no longer write in this fashion but the readers of the first century were intimately acquainted with the style. Apocalyptic is highly symbolic and almost everything is a symbol of something else (though not in an allegorical sense). The thing we must remember is that this book was written to a specific audience for a specific purpose. Therefore, it had relevant application to them at that moment. They knew immediately what every symbol meant but we do not - separated as we are by two thousand years. An example will be helpful.

Imagine someone from another country picking up today's newspaper about 2000 years from now and seeing a drawing of an angry donkey arguing with an even angrier elephant. We know exactly what those images mean but someone from the far future will most likely not. Someone separated by time and culture will have an even more difficult time in decipering the cartoon. What if they decide that the donkey and elephant stands for something entirely different from a democrat and republican in the American political system? Even if that future interpretation makes sense and entire systems of thought are built around it and scads of book are written about it, they would be wrong.

The same holds true in the study of Revelation. When we read Revelation, we must keep this in mind: If our interpretation would be considered nonsensical to the first century audience, then our interpretation is wrong. This most likely means that horses probably do not equal tanks, locusts probably do not equal Apache attack helicopters and, hold on to your seats, the mark of the beast is probably not a computer chip hooked to a giant mainframe computer in Belgium!

2) In determining the meaning of disputed passages in the Bible, it is best to refer to the clear teaching passages of Scripture. Scripture will interpret Scripture. Therefore, it is advisable to let the clear inform the less clear. If we want to know for certain about the Lord's return, it makes sense to read what Paul wrote in his letters which were meant to instruct directly and clearly. It is also helpful to read the words of Christ in the Gospels. We take out understanding of the epistles and Gospels with us into Revelation. It just does not make sense to use the highly symbolic apocalyptic to inform our interpretation of the epistles and gospels.

So, concerning the alleged problematic gap of 1000 years between Christ's return and the judgment of the wicked, what about those other passages of Scripture that seem to provide a problem for the premillennial view? They are found in the epistles and the Gospels. We will look at some of those in the next post.


Tim Marsh said...


I will respond to the Romans 9-11 question when more time permits. However, I really appreciated this post on Revelation. When you teach Revelation how well is that received? Dispensational Premillenialism is so popular thanks to Left Behind that it is difficult to break through "literalist" assumptions to at least present, if not convince, an audience that various interpretations of Revelation exist, and the "Left Behind" view is a minority.


Grace and peace,


Jeff A. Spry said...


I have not taught on the millennium in a LONG time. I have not taught on Revelation since coming to Western Avenue in 2001 and my views have changed in some areas since that last time in Tennessee in 1998. At this time, I am merely in the process of studying this particular issue because it slapped me in the face one morning during my quiet time.

I have taught on the doctrine of the Rapture on two separate occasions in Statesville. It was a neat course - I gave a positive presentation of the four major tribulational views and basically proved each one. You can find the notes on the church's website (this was before we started recording some classes). I then opened the floor up for questions and comments as we critiqued each position (pretrib, midtrib, pre-wrath, post-trib).

I am thankful to be in a great church that loves to be taught and doesn't mind being challenged in theological areas. I am sure some didn't appreciate any critique of pretrib but we were fair and poked holes in each view.