In my previous article, introducing the subject of the millennium and various millennial views, I noted that one of the major types of views is often termed “premillennialism.” In this type of view, it is argued that Christ’s return will occur “pre-” or before the establishment of the millennium. This view has, furthermore, two main variations: there is what I would term an “historic” type of pre-millennialism and a more recent type known as “dispensational” pre-millennialism. In this article, I would like to address the first of these types, historic pre-millennialism.
A BRIEF HISTORICAL OVERVIEW
Before noting some of the main features of historic pre-millennialism, it is useful to observe that this view of the millennium has had its adherents and defenders throughout the history of the Christian church. Some defenders of pre-millennialism will even go so far as to argue that this has been the pre-dominant view of the Christian church throughout the centuries, and that the other millennial views are, accordingly, minority viewpoints. Though this is an overstatement of the matter, there is reason to speak of a “classic” or “historic” form of pre-millennialism, when we consider this view of the millennium.
For example, in the early history of the church, there were a number among the church Fathers who advocated a form of pre-millennial teaching. Among the second century “apologists” or defenders of the faith, Justin Martyr taught that the return of Christ would inaugurate a one-thousand year period of peace and righteousness upon the earth, with the Old Testament prophecies regarding Israel’s restoration and future blessing literally fulfilled. This view was shared by many other influential teachers, among them Ireneaus, Hippolytus and Lactantius. Support for this understanding was often derived from the Epistle of Barnabas and the teaching that the time of creation, subsequent to the first creation week, spanned a period of six days, each of one thousand years duration.1 In this particular understanding, the millennium would occur six thousand years after creation and represents the seventh day, or the last period in history of one thousand years.
Due to a variety of factors, most prominently the influence of Augustine’s view of the millennium, this early form of pre-millennialism largely disappeared during the Middle Ages until new forms revived in the period of the Reformation of the sixteenth century and then in more recent times. One factor that led to its demise was the excessive literalism and even materialism that characterized the views of early pre-ntillennialists. By contrast, many theologians during this period began to “spiritualize” and even “allegorize” the biblical texts, treating many of the prontises of the Scriptures as referring primarily to spiritual rather than material blessings. Furthermore, the excesses of some defenders of premillennialism, particularly the teachings of the Montanists who embraced a form of pre-millennialist teaching, contributed to the decline of pre-ntillennial views.2 Pre-millennialism was discredited among many segments of the church as a kind of “Jewish” heresy, one which failed to see the unity of the people of God and placed too much emphasis upon the earthly prosperity of the future millennium. When the influential church Father, Saint Augustine, adopted a view of the millennium as coinciding with the present age of the church and the proclamation of the gospel, the influence of premillennialism waned.
Since the early history of the church, there has been a resurgence of interest in and commitment to a premillennialist view at two important junctures. During the Protestant Reformation, though most of the Reformers followed Augustine and rejected pre-millennialism, some among the ana-Baptists advanced their own forms of premillennial teaching. However, due to the extreme forms which their views often took, most of the churches of the Reformation rejected pre-millennialism. Only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has pre-millennials men joyed a renewed popularity, although often in the form of what maybe termed “dispensational” pre-millennialism, a form not present in earlier church history. Indeed, the predominant view of conservative evangelicals today, if we were to include the dispensational form of pre-millennialism, is that of pre-millennialism, the view that there will be a literal millennium after the event of Christ’s return.
Even within the Reformed tradition, which has not been confessionally or explicitly pre-millennialist throughout its history, there have been notable, and more recent, examples of pre-millennialist teaching. In the Christian Reformed Church, for example, there was a controversy regarding pre-millennialism in the early part of the twentieth century. Known as the “Maranatha” controversy; this controversy revolved around the person and teaching of Rev. Bultema, author of a book, Maranatha, who was deposed for espousing pre-millennial views, including a denial of Christ’s present kingship over all the nations.3
In a sequel to this controversy, Dr. D. H. Kromminga, church historian at Calvin Seminary, advocated a premillennial eschatology and appealed to the synod of the Christian Reformed Church to determine whether this view was consistent with the Reformed Confessions, asking particularly for a change in the Belgic Confession, Article 37, which teaches that the number of the elect is completed before Christ’s return.4
Though it is evident from this brief historical overview that pre-millennialism has not been the predominant view of the church throughout its history nor the view of the Reformed churches, it is important to know that premillennialism has become, among conservative Protestants today, the prevalent viewpoint.
THE MAIN FEATURES OF HISTORIC PRE-MILLENNIALISM
So far we have only identified the major distinguishing feature of historic pre-millennialism, namely, its insistence that the millennium will take place or be introduced after Christ’s return at the end of the age. It remains for us to consider in more detail the other features that are distinctive to historic pre-millennialism. Admittedly, our summary will have to overlook the finer points of differences that may exist among historic pre-millennialists. We will only be able to provide a general outline of this position, within which many variations are possible.
The first feature of pre-millennialism is its insistence that the return of Christ will introduce a millennial period during which Christ, having returned to the earth at His second coming, will reign upon the earth for an extended period of time. Not all pre-millennialists insist that this period will be of exactly one thousand years duration, although this is the most common position. According to this position, Christ will be bodily present upon the earth, reigning over the nations from the earthly seat of His kingdom in Jerusalem. This millennial reign, in marked contrast to those signs of the times that characterize this present age prior to Christ’s return, will be a period of universal peace and prosperity between and among the nations of the earth. Though sin and its consequences will not be utterly removed, the millennium will be a “golden age” in which the earth and its inhabitants will enjoy an unprecedented kind of blessedness.
During the millennium, Christ will exercise a complete and uncontested sovereignty, having utterly defeated the anti-Christ and all His enemies at His coming. The promise of Philippians 2:10–11, that every knee shall bow and tongue confess that He is Lord, will be fulfilled. Christ’s rule will introduce a period of righteousness in which the characteristics of the kingdom of God, as these are set forth, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount, will be generally honored. In fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, the nations will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks (Isaiah 2:4; compare Micah 4:3). The creation itself will in some sense experience the liberation of the children of God (Romans 8:22–23; compare Isaiah 11:8–9; 65:25). And the saints will be given the special privilege of reigning together with Christ on the earth.
Another feature that stands out in historic premillennialism is its insistence that the return of Christ will come suddenly and cataclysmically, after a period of intensified opposition to and trouble for the people of God. There will not be a gradual improvement during the period prior to the millennium. Rather, the various signs of the times which express opposition to Christ and His people will intensify. Tribulation, apostasy among the people of God, the coming of the anti-Christ—these events will immediately precede Christ’s return, triumph over His enemies, and inaugurate His kingdom on earth. For this reason, historic pre-millennialism is often referred to as post-tribulationalism, in distinction from the “pre-tribulationalism” commonly a feature of dispensational premillennialism. It is given this designation because it teaches that the return of Christ will only occur after a period of tribulation in which the believing people of God will suffer before Christ’s return.5 As we approach the end and the return of Christ, historic pre-millennialism anticipates a period of great trial for the people of God which will only be cut off at the time of Christ’s return.
Although historic pre-millennialism teaches that there is ultimately only one people of God, the church, comprised of Jewish and Gentile believers alike, all of whom are saved through faith in the one Mediator, Jesus Christ, it reserves a special place in God’s purpose and kingdom for the Jewish nation and people. Many of the promises of the Old Testament have been fulfilled in the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, there remains among these promises, and especially in the teaching of the apostle Paul in Romans 9–11, the expectation that God’s purposes with national Israel have not come to an end. When Christ returns and the millennium commences, national Israel will experience a kind of corporate conversion and receive a place of special prominence in the millennial kingdom. Though historic pre-millennialists reject many of the tenets of dispensationalism regarding the millennium for example, that the sacrificial system will in some sense be set up again in Israel for the Jews—they do maintain that the majority of the Jewish people (though not every individual) will be converted and find many of the special promises of God’s Word for them fulfilled in this period of the millennium.
One further feature of historic pre-millennialism is its insistence that there will be two, separate bodily resurrections, the one occurring at the beginning of the millennium and the other occurring at the end of the millennium. As we shall see in a moment, they appeal to Revelation 20 in defense of the view that believers will enjoy a “first” resurrection before the millennium, so that they might reign with Christ upon the earth for the thousand years of the millennium, and unbelievers will only be raised in the “second” resurrection at the end of the millennium, so that they might be judged and subsequently receive their just punishment in hell, which is the second death.
TWO IMPORTANT BIBLICAL PASSAGES
In order to complete this brief sketch of historic premillennialism, we need to consider two biblical passages which form the basis for the various aspects of this position as we have described it. George Eldon Ladd, perhaps the most able recent defender of historic or classic pre-millennialism, has rightly conceded that these passages constitute the primary biblical basis for this position.6 The first and most important of these passages is Revelation 20:1–6, the only biblical passage which speaks explicitly of the millennium or thousand-year reign of Christ. Due to the importance of this passage, it is necessary to quote it in full:
And I saw an angel coming down from heaven, having the key of the abyss and a great chain in the hand. And he laid hold of the dragon, the serpent of old, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the abyss, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he should not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were completed; after these things he must be released for a short time. And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the testimony of Jesus and because of the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received the mark upon their forehead and upon their hand; and 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 completed. This is the first resurrection; over these the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with Him for a thousand years.
Though we cannot address all of the issues relating to the interpretation of this passage here, historic premillennialists argue that this passage provides clear support for their position.
The key aspect of this passage, according to these pre-millennialists, is its teaching of two separate, bodHy resurrections, the first of believing saints at the time of Christ’s return and the beginning of the millennium, the second of unbelieving sinners at the end of the millennium. The separation of time between these two resurrections,which form a kind of bracket around the millennium, makes the premillennialist view inescapable. According to their understanding of this text, the same language is used, “they came to life,” to describe two distinct resurrections. This language and the terminology of resurrection must refer, as is ordinarily the case in the Scriptures, to a bodily resurrection (compare Rev. 2:8; 13:14; Ezek. 37:10).7 Furthermore, those who come to life in the first resurrection are clearly believing saints who are given to reign with Christ for a period of one thousand years. Those who participate, however, in the second resurrection are “the rest,” presumably those who have no part in the first resurrection and are subject, unlike the former, to the “second death.” The picture that emerges, then, from this passage is in full agreement with the pre-millennialist view of the future: when Christ returns, Satan will be bound, believers will be raised to reign with Him for a thousand years on the earth, and only at the end of this millennial period will the unbelieving come to life in order to be subjected to judgment (compare the graph).
Pre-millennialists also appeal to the literal implications of this passage’s description of the millennium.8 In the vision of the apostle John in Revelation 20, he sees Satan bound and thrown into the abyss “so that he should not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were completed.” This language describes a millennial period during which Christ will reign with His saints over the nations in a manner that supersedes anything known in this present period of history prior to Christ’s return. Unlike the present period in which the nations and peoples continue to exhibit a great deal of hostility and rebellion against the rule of Christ, the millennium will be a period in which the kingdom of Christ will be openly manifest and triumphant upon the earth. A simple, literal reading of this text leaves no other interpretation open to us than this view of the millennial reign of Christ. It also fits well with the understanding that in the future the people of Israel will be restored to God’s favor and many of the Jews will be converted. For pre-millennialists this too will be a facet of the millennium which is to come.
The other passage worthy of notice here is 1 Corinthians 15:23–26. It too deserves to be quoted in full:
But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ’s at His coming, then comes the end, when He delivers up the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death.
In this passage, Ladd and other pre-millennialists argue, we are taught that there are three distinguishable stages in history. The first of these stages is the age of the Christian church, during which Christ’s reign is largely hidden. The second of these stages is the age of the millennium, during which Christ’s reign is manifest for all to see. And the third of these stages is the age of the eternal kingdom when the kingdom reverts to God the Father.
Though pre-millennialists admit that these stages in temporal sequence are not explicitly revealed in this passage, they are implicit. When, for example, we read that the resurrection victory of Christ will occur in a particular order, we find the sequence of events taught in Revelation 20 confirmed. Christ’s resurrection is the “first fruits,” introducing the age of the church and the proclamation of the gospel. Then, when Christ returns, those who are Christ’s at His coming” will be given a share in His victory; this is the first resurrection of Revelation 20, marking the beginning of the age of the millennium. Then again, when the age of the millennium is concluded, the “end” will come and Christ will deliver up the kingdom “to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power.” The sequence of events in this passage—Christ’s resurrection, at His coming the resurrection of believers, at the end the turning over of all things to the Father-corresponds to the sequence of events in Revelation 20. Thus, this passage confirms the pre-millennialist reading of this controversial passage.
Though I will reserve to a future article an evaluation of historic pre-millennialism, the main lines of this understanding of the millennium ought now to be in view.
Historic pre-millennialism, a view of the millennium that has had its advocates throughout Christian history, teaches that, as the return of Christ approaches, the signs of opposition to Christ’s gospel and church will intensify. The age of the church will be closed with the coming of the anti-Christ and great tribulation for the people of God. However, Christ will suddenly come from heaven and utterly vanquish Satan and his host, binding him for a period of one thousand years. During this period Christ will reign upon the earth together with all His saints, especially prominent among them many of the Jewish people who will be converted in the last days. These saints will be comprised of believers who were alive at Christ’s coming or deceased saints who have a part in the “first” resurrection. This millennial period will be one of tremendous blessing, righteousness and prosperity on the earth. Many of the promises regarding a future age of divine favor and blessing will be fulfilled. The millennium, however, will close with a “little season” of Satanic rebellion which will be put down by Christ. Then the “rest of the dead,” the unbelieving, will be raised in the “second” resurrection in order that they might be judged and condemned to eternal punishment in hell. Then the “end” will come, the inauguration of the eternal form of the kingdom of God in which God is become all in all.
1 The Epistle of Barnabas is one of the earliest Christian writings (possibly early second century) that we have, and it exercised a considerable influence among many of the early church Fathers. Though this letter clearly teaches the idea of history being comprised of “days” of one-thousand years duration, it is not so clear that it actually teaches pre-millennialism, as many assume. Two useful surveys of the early history of pre-millennialism are: D.H. Kromminga, The Millennium in the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1945); and Charles Hill, Regnum Caelorum: Patterns of Future Hope in Early Christianity (Oxford: Clarendon, 1992). The study of Hill is especially interesting, as he convincingly challenges, on the basis of a very thorough investigation, a common claim that the preponderance of early church teachers espoused a pre·millennialist view.
2 The Montanists were a prophetic sect which began in the late second century and eventually broke with the Catholic church, proclaiming a “new prophecy” regarding the imminent return of Christ and granting great prominence to two prophetesses, Prisca and Maximilla. Among the most prominent of Montanists was the church Father, Tertullian, who joined this sect later in his life.
3 For a brief account of this controversy, see: John H Kromminga, The Christian Reformed Church: A Study in Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1949), pp. 72–75. This controversy gave birth to the Berean churches.
4 For more on this subject and Kromminga’s appeal, see: John H. Kromminga, The Christian Reformed Church, p. 79; O.H. Kromminga, The Millennium (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948)i and the Acts of Synod of the Christian Reformed Church, 1946 and 1947. Since Dr. Kromminga died before his appeal could be handled by a Christian Reformed synod, no official answer was ever given to the questions he raised regarding the permissibility of holding a pre-millennialist view and subscribing to the Three Forms of Unity. It is interesting to observe that among conservative, confessional Presbyterians, there has been a willingness to permit the holding and advocating of historic pre-millennialism as compatible with the Reformed faith. Kromminga was correct, however, to note that premillennialism does not seem compatible with Article 37 of the Belgic Confession.
5 When we consider the teaching of dispensational pre-millenialism in a subsequent article, we will have occasion to treat its view that Christ’s second coming will occur in two stages, the first of which the rapture, will occur before a seven year period of great tribulation. To make matters even more complicated, it should also be noted that some dispensationalists teach a “mid-tribulational rapture”!
6 Ladd’s able defense of pre-millennialism can be found in the following: Crucial Questions About the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952); The Blessed Hope (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956); and The Gospel of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1959).
7 Cf. the following oft-quoted (by pre-millennialists at least!) argument of Henry Alford, in his New Testament for English Readers (reprinted., 2 vols. in 1; Chicago: Moody, n.d.), pp.1928–1929: “If in a passage where two resurrections are mentioned, where certain souls lived at the first, and the rest of the dead lived only at the end of a specified period after that first,—if in such a passage the first resurrection can be understood to mean spiritual rising with Christ, while the second means literal rising from the grave—then there is an end of all significance in language, and Scripture is wiped out as a definite testimony to anything.” We will have to see whether this is so when we consider Revelation 20 in more depth at a later time.
8 Historic pre-millennialism shares with its “cousin,” dispensational pre-millennialism, a preference for a “literal” reading of the biblical texts, even texts like those in the book of Revelation that employ rich symbolism and apocalyptic language. However, it also concedes that many Old Testament prophecies regarding the future do not have a literal fulfillment in the New Testament. Perhaps this is also a good place to note that, unlike the older premillennialism of the early church which was “preterist” in its reading of the book of Revelation, contemporary pre-millennialists tend to be “preterist” and “futurist” in their reading of the book. A “preterist” reading is one which regards the events described and prophesied in the book of Revelation to be events in the past, events which coincided with the time of the early church to whom the book was first addressed. A “futurist” reading is one which regards the events described and prophesied to be events in the future, at the end of history just prior to and including the return of Christ.
Dr. Venema, editor of this department, teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN.