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