Why I Might Become a Historic Premillennialist

I should probably start by giving a brief theological autobiography. From a very young age, I had bought into dispensational premillennialism. I read nearly all the Left Behind books as a teenager, becoming convinced that a pre-tribulational rapture was the biblical view. All that changed when I went to college, where I majored in history with a concentration in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Upon learning about the numerous human rights abuses committed against Palestinians in the name of biblical prophecy (a thorny topic for another day), I quickly gave up on dispensationalism. I wish I could say that my reasons were more biblically based, but unfortunately my college years coincided with a drift away from Christianity and into atheism (again, another post for another day). Three years after college, I finally came to a saving faith through a Presbyterian church. Thus began a renewed interest in biblical theology, and I soon discovered amillennialism, which I would come to embrace for the next nine years.

In 2009, I moved to St. Louis to attend Covenant Theological Seminary. During my time there, I continued to identify comfortably as an amillennialist—my main theological influences being R.C. Sproul, Kim Riddlebarger, Anthony Hoekema, Richard Bauckham, and G.K. Beale. But my confidence began to erode when I took the class Pastoral & General Epistles, co-taught by Greg Perry (an amillennialist) and David Chapman (a historic premillennialist). In one particular lecture toward the end of the semester, each professor gave a defense of his own millennial view. Dr. Chapman’s presentation rattled some of my assumptions, and so I decided to write my final exegetical paper defending an amillennial interpretation of Revelation 20:1-7, the only passage in Scripture that explicitly mentions the Millennium. I asked Dr. Chapman to be as brutal as possible in his critiques of my paper, and he was happy to oblige. His thoughtful comments on that paper left a lasting impression on me. Although I wasn’t yet persuaded to give up amillennialism, I gained a much deeper respect and appreciation for historic premillennialism.

Fast-forward to the present. I now teach theology at Westminster Academy, a classical Christian school in Memphis. As we approach the end of the 2014-2015 school year, I am walking my 11th-grade class through a unit on eschatology. I have been using Anthony Hoekema’s The Bible and the Future (amillennialist) as the basis for my lectures, but the assigned reading for the students is Wayne Grudem’s Bible Doctrine (historic premillennialist). As I yet again have a chance to compare these two opposing viewpoints, I find myself slowly moving in an unexpected direction: the historic premillennialists might actually be right after all.

I’m still processing all this. I haven’t made the jump just yet, but let me explain my reasons for reconsidering my position.

Revelation 20:1-6

I have sometimes heard it said that amillennialists make the stronger systematic case, whereas premillennialists make the stronger exegetical case. There is probably some truth to that, since I find the strongest argument for premillennialism to be the text of Revelation 20:1-6 itself. There are three clues here that I believe point toward a premillennial interpretation: 1) the binding of Satan, 2) the resurrection of the martyrs, and 3) the martyrs’ reigning with Christ.

On the amillennial reading, these three clues are understood as follows: 1) since the time of Christ’s earthly ministry, Satan’s influence on earth has been significantly restrained, such that he can no longer prevent the spread of the gospel throughout the world; 2) at death, Christian martyrs are brought immediately into the presence of God in heaven—also known as the “intermediate state” (alternatively, some amillennialists argue that the “first resurrection” refers to these martyrs’ spiritual rebirth); and 3) the martyrs currently reign with Christ in heaven.

By contrast, historic premillennialists interpret these clues as follows: 1) the binding of Satan implies a much greater restriction of his activity on earth than is presently the case; 2) the resurrection of the martyrs refers to a physical and bodily resurrection; and 3) the martyrs’ “reigning” with Christ refers to a future earthly reign, not a present heavenly reign.

So what reasons are there to favor the premillennial reading of Rev. 20:1-6 over the amillennial reading? First, the language of Satan being thrown into a pit, which is then shut and sealed, seems to imply more than just a curtailing of his ability to prevent the spread of the gospel. Amillennialists often point to Matt. 12:29 for support of their reading (“How can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man?”). However, I’m not convinced that the “binding” to which Jesus refers here is the same as the “binding” to which John refers—especially considering that Jesus’ words have specific reference to his power to exorcise demons. Second, it is quite a stretch to call the intermediate state a “resurrection” (Greek anastasis), which in Scripture never means “going up to heaven” (and the alternative view—that the “first resurrection” refers to spiritual rebirth—faces the problem that this resurrection is described as taking place after the believers have already been martyred). And third, when Revelation elsewhere speaks of believers “reigning” with Christ, it specifies an earthly reign, not a merely heavenly reign (5:10; 22:5).

The Historical Argument

In addition to the exegetical case for premillennialism, one can make a strong argument for it on the basis of its widespread reception in the early church, especially in the region where John’s letters first circulated (credit to Dr. Chapman for this argument). The Book of Revelation was originally written to seven churches in Asia Minor (western Turkey), and it so happens that many of the post-apostolic church fathers from this area held to premillennialism (known at the time as chiliasm, after the Greek word for “thousand”). Among these fathers were Polycarp, Papias, Irenaeus, and Justin Martyr.[1] In fact, premillennialism continued to be the majority view of the early church (and not just in Asia Minor) until the time of Augustine in the early fifth century, when amillennialism finally supplanted it in popularity. What is so remarkable about this is the fact that those who were closest to John—both historically and geographically—and who were in the best position to understand the original context and purpose of John’s letters, all accepted the premillennial view. While the historical roots of other disputed Christian doctrines (such as infant baptism) are not always clear, in this particular case there can be no doubt about who wins the historical argument.

Objections

Now there are several objections to historic premillennialism, and for a long time these objections prevented me from jumping the fence. But now that I have time to reflect on them further, I’m not so sure that I find these objections to be all that decisive. Here they are, in no particular order:

  • “It’s only one passage!” As I mentioned above, the popular conception is that amillennialists win the systematic argument, while premillennialists win the exegetical argument. It is true that premillennialists hang nearly their entire case on a single text in Revelation. But I don’t really see why this is such a problem. First, exegesis is the foundation of systematic theology. So unless there are other passages in Scripture that explicitly contradict a premillennial interpretation of Revelation 20, I think we should accept it as the most straightforward reading. And second, God only needs to say something once for us to accept it. How many other doctrines are based on just a single passage of Scripture? (Side note: technically premillennialists could also point to Isaiah 65:20, which describes an era when sin and death are significantly reduced, but not yet destroyed.)
  • “It’s Revelation, the most symbolic book of the Bible!” To be honest, this is still probably my biggest reservation with accepting historic premillennialism. Revelation is a notoriously difficult book to interpret, with no less than four major competing interpretive frameworks for it (preterism, futurism, historicism, and idealism). Surely there is much in the book that should not be taken in a woodenly literalistic fashion. However, it does not follow that the text is not referential. The Millennium of Revelation 20—whether or not it corresponds to a literal thousand years—has to refer to something, and the details of the text are there for a reason. God does not reveal his Word to his children in order to confuse us, but so that we might reach understanding. We might not always arrive at a complete understanding, but I think it is far too dismissive to reject premillennialism simply because Revelation is full of symbolic language. Symbols mean things.
  • “Scripture elsewhere mentions only a single resurrection, not two resurrections separated by a thousand years.” This argument comes from Anthony Hoekema, who points to John 5:28-29: “…An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear [Jesus’] voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (The Bible and the Future, 240). The point that Hoekema makes is that, according to this passage, both believers and unbelievers are said to be raised in the same hour, not with a thousand years in between. But the problem with this objection is that “hour” is frequently used in a non-literal sense in apocalyptic texts (just like “the day of the Lord”). So the question is, should we interpret the Millennium in light of this “hour,” or should we interpret “hour” in light of the Millennium? Which text gives fuller and clearer detail?
  • “Revelation 20 is ‘progressive recapitulation,’ not a sequel to Revelation 19.” This argument is presented in detail in G.K. Beale’s Revelation commentary in the NIGNT series. The basic idea is that Rev. 19 and Rev. 20 are not to be taken in linear succession, but as a cyclical repetition or recapitulation. In other words, Rev. 20 isn’t simply picking up where Rev. 19 left off, but is retelling the entire history of the church from its beginning in Christ’s earthly ministry (when Satan was supposedly first “bound”). This interpretation is necessary for the amillennialist view, because Rev. 19 ends with the beast and false prophet being thrown into the lake of fire after the battle of Armageddon, at the end of the church age. If the Millennium spans the entire church age, then Rev. 20 has to rewind the clock back to the beginning. The only problem is this: in Rev. 20:10, the beast and false prophet are already in the lake of fire when Satan is finally thrown in with them! This point is so crucial because I have never heard a satisfactory amillennial response to it. If the Antichrist is already in the lake of fire during the Millennium, then Rev. 20 cannot be a recapitulation of Rev. 19. And if Rev. 20 temporally follows Rev. 19, then we end up in premillennialism.

This, in a nutshell, is why I am currently dissatisfied with my amillennialism. Much more could be said on this subject (deepest apologies to my postmillennial friends, whom I have completely ignored!), but my purpose here is simply to stimulate further discussion. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if in the near future I start identifying as a historic premillennialist.

[1] H. Wayne House, “Pre-Millennialism in the Ante-Nicene Church,” Bibliotheca Sacra 169 (Jul-Sep 2012): 271-82.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

8 Responses to “Why I Might Become a Historic Premillennialist”

  1. Kyle, I appreciate your post as you have had an interesting adventure through eschatological views. I can identify with this, sharing your dispensational roots (for me, it was mainly from listening to Moody Radio). However, I am convinced that the amillennial view is correct.

    I am a fellow PCA TE. I am not here to offer a rebuttal to your view per se, but instead to offer you a book recommendation that I hope might persuade you to remain in the “amill camp”. The book is Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative by Sam Storms. In it, he directly responds to your last point about the binding of Satan, and I believe that he does so satisfactorily. He says:

    “This argument is based on a mistranslation of Rev 20:10. The text literally reads: “and the devil, the one who deceives them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where also the beast and false prophet and they shall be tormented day and night forever and ever.” The NASB supplies the verb “are” (Gk. eisi; the ESV renders it “were”), wrongly so in my opinion. The verb to be supplied should probably be “were cast” (eblethesan) from 19:20. Thus the text would read: “and the devil… was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where also [hopou kai; cf. 11:8 for a similar usage] the beast and false prophet were cast (eblethesan).”

    “So, when were the beast and false prophet cast in? The answer would appear to be, at the conclusion of the war, when the devil himself was cast in. The three jointly instigated the Armageddon/God-Magog revolt and are therefore jointly cast into the lake of fire to be jointly tormented forever and ever. The text does not say that the beast and false prophet were “already” in the lake of fire when Satan was cast in. Even if it did, this need only imply that after the was the beast and false prophet were first judged and case into the lake of fire, a judgment and fate then immediately applied to Satan.”

    One personal question for you is, if Rev 20 is NOT a recapitulation of Rev 19, then who would be left from 19:21 that would be able to be deceived and do battle in 20:8? Again, I am happy to dialogue with you a bit, but Sam Storms does it so well in his book that I would rather just recommend it to you.

    Peace be with you, brother, because I think we can both agree that, in either case, Jesus wins. And that is decidedly good news for us!

  2. Jason, thank you for your thoughtful response! Sam Storms’ book has been on my wishlist for a while, and I will definitely have to read it before committing either way. I’ll offer two brief thoughts to your comments:

    1) If the beast and false prophet are thrown into the lake of fire at the same time as Satan, why didn’t John simply write, “And the devil and the beast and the false prophet were all thrown into the lake of fire…”? By separating Satan from the beast and false prophet with the conjunction hopou, John indicates that the beast and false prophet are somehow removed from the action of the verse. Further, if 20:10 is describing when the beast and false prophet were cast into the lake of fire, then where are they in 20:1-9? Why would this passage only mention their fate without also mentioning their activity on earth, unless it is describing a time after their activity on earth?

    2) I have heard your objection about no unbelievers being left to do battle in 20:8, but I think that this objection rests on a misunderstanding of the nature of the Millennium. Sin is not yet abolished during this age; and people are still capable of being deceived and falling away (excluding the resurrected martyrs). See my note above on Isaiah 65:20.

    • J. Charles Duggins Reply May 13, 2015 at 10:18 pm

      Kyle,
      I am responding to your response to Jason:
      1) If Jason’s linguistic argument is correct, then an English paraphrase of the accurate translation would be something like:
      “And the devil who deceived the people was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, the same place that the beast and false prophet were thrown, and they shall all be together be tormented”

      This kind of reading dispenses with your argument of”why didn’t John simply write…”

      In response to your other argument, that they (the beast and false prophet) should have been mentioned in the action of chapter 20, you could just as easily argue that -given amillennialism- the devil should have been mentioned in the preceding chapter.
      Both arguments are unfair to the amillennial position, which, after all, would describe the two passages as dealing with different aspects (political/military vs spiritual, let us say), and so we would expect them to mention different figures- all of whom are mentioned together at the end.

      2) When you say “I think that this objection rests on a misunderstanding of the nature of the Millennium,” surely you are simply reading a particular concept of the millennium into the passage (that there will be enough people left after battle-1 to populate the millennium), where, on the surface, “both” battles appear to be apocalypticaly final.

      3) One might also ask about the difficulties of a sequential reading: if the two battle-passages are not recapitulative, why are the heavenly saints celebrating even before the first battle “for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready.”
      That is to say , in the Premillennial reading they are celebrating the imminent Wedding Feast if they still have to wait for:
      -a mini-apocalypse
      -a thousand years period
      -a rebellion
      -a full apocalypse
      – a session of God’s Court which is long enough for everyone in all of history (at least all unbelievers) to be judged individually according to all their deeds.
      …all before: “the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”

      This seems odd.

      • Charles, I will try to offer some brief thoughts on your responses:

        1a) When the relative adverb hopou is used, it introduces a subordinate clause that is removed from the foreground action of the main clause to the background. So if hopou in Rev. 20:10 is providing background rather than foreground information, then the fate of the beast and false prophet must have preceded that of Satan.

        1b) As for the absence of Satan from Rev. 19, there is an asymmetry here that is important to notice. Neither Satan’s activity nor his fate is mentioned in Rev. 19. Both are mentioned of the beast and false prophet in Rev. 19. In Rev. 20, it is just the opposite: Both Satan’s activity and his fate are mentioned, but neither is mentioned of the beast or false prophet. But what would not make sense is for the beast/false prophet’s activity to be merely implied in Rev. 20, while their fate is then explicitly mentioned. No such inference is needed to account for Satan’s absence in Rev. 19, since his fate is not mentioned. And I’m not sure I buy the “military/spiritual” perspectives distinction between the passages. Both describe military battles in very similar terms, so what other clues (besides the different actors) would lead us to believe that the same narrative is presented from different perspectives?

        2) Yes, I am reading a particular concept of the Millennium into the passage. In fact, every responsible interpreter “reads into” the biblical text. We read into it based on context, lexical background, theological foundations, etc. In fact, you are reading into it too. We can’t help that. The proper question to ask is, which “reading in” is more justified? So I would ask, why is there any reason to think that there cannot be more than one apocalyptic battle? Does John ever say that there can only be one? He seems pretty comfortable talking about two resurrections, after all. (Also see Jorge’s comments below about Zech. 14.)

        3) As for all the events preceding the Wedding Supper on the premillennial reading, I agree. It all does seem odd. Premillennialism itself is pretty strange compared to amillennialism. That’s why I don’t want to give up my amillennialism. But if I am going to be honest with myself, I think I have to admit that premillennialism makes a better case and simply bite the bullet on all its “oddities.”

    • Another resource that may be of help to you as you consider the evidence for recapitulation in Revelation is Fowler White’s article in WTJ 51.2 (1989), pp.319-344. Alternatively, you can read what seems to be the same article here…

      http://www.apuritansmind.com/the-christian-walk/recapitulation-in-revelation-201-10-by-dr-r-fowler-white/

  3. Zechariah 14 gives more detail about the millennium. Not all people in the Earth gather for the battle of Armageddon, so only those gathered, are destroyed by CHRIST. The rest of the people, are those who make it into the millennium. Again, Zechariah 14 gives more detail about it.

  4. This is an interesting discussion, Kyle. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I have been thinking through my millennial view lately as well. I am doing my M.Div. at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and this past semester I took a class on Revelation with Dr. Grant Osborne (author of the Revelation volume in the Baker Exegetical Commentary series). He himself is a historic premillenialist but acknowledges that the amillennial view is valid as well.

    I wrote an exegetical paper for that class on Rev. 20:1-10, and I ended up taking the premil view even though I too see a lot of validity in the amil view. I think the main reason I went with the premil view is that, in light of Rev. 12-13, it is difficult to hold that Satan is presently bound. I understand that amillennialists qualify this to mean that he cannot deceive the nations, not that he is completely inactive. Even with that qualification, however, it is difficult to understand Satan’s inability to deceive the nations as a present reality because that is exactly what he is doing in Rev. 13. Rev. 12 does show Satan being defeated at the cross of Christ, but his defeat at the cross means he has no basis to accuse believers (Rev. 12:10-11). It does not mean he cannot deceive the nations, because that is what he does in chapter 13 – he tricks people into worshipping the beast (v. 8, 13, 14, 16). So I find it better to say that Revelation teaches three defeats of Satan: one at the cross, one during the millennium, and one in the lake of fire. Instead of Revelation 12 and 20 being the same defeat of Satan, they are two different defeats. The first prevents him from accusing believers (because of the work of Christ), and the second prevents him from deceiving non-believers.

    I’d love to hear an amillennialist’s evaluation of this argument.

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