Continuing with my study on eschatology, I would like to provide a brief overview of each of the three major eschatological systems with my next set of posts: amillennialism, postmillennialism, and then premillennialism. I don’t want to go into a detailed interaction with each system evaluating all the strengths and weaknesses. I merely want to lay out the historical development and the major theological talking points.
I will begin with amillennialism.
Right out of the starting gate we are faced with a problematic term. The prefix “a -” means “no,” and “millennium” of course means “millennium,” or “1,000” as in “1,000 years.” Thus, the term means “no millennium” or “no thousand years.”
It is a problematic term because it inaccurately suggests amillennialists do not believe in a millennium. I cannot count how many times I have had to correct this misconception in the minds of individuals who disagreed with amillennialism who wrongly assumed amillennialists just ignore Revelation 20:1-6 [Craigen, 1; Hoekema 173]. Amillennialists even recognize the difficulty in terminology. Jay Adam’s, in his book called The Time is at Hand, attempted to coin the term, realized millennialism. But even amillennialists thought any attempt to rename the term something other than “amillennialism” would be fruitless.
Rather than trying to rename amillennialism, the better approach is simply explaining what is meant by the term. Amillennialism means that no future millennium, or 1,000 years, follows the return of Christ. The millennium is understood as happening now in this present age with Christ reigning with His saints through the Church. Thus, the 1,000 years is not meant to be taken as a literal 1,000 years of 365,000 days, but is symbolic of the Church age from the time of Christ’s ascension to the time of His return.
Augustine was the first Church theologian to articulate an amillennial scheme. The view was found in seed form among earlier North African Dontanist schismatics, like Tyconnius in his commentary on Daniel. He employed an allegorical hermeneutic to interpret prophetic passages as speaking to the triumphant reign of Christ now upon the earth [Craigen, 5]. But it was Augustine who had the lasting impact as a theologian to formulate amillennialism.
He sets forth his eschatology in his magnum opus, The City of God in book 20, chapters 4-15, and as Robert Culver notes, “It is safe to assert that until this section of Augustine’s great work is mastered one cannot fully appreciate the millennial discussions which have followed since his day. It is almost, if not wholly true, that all amillennial and postmillennial systems have been postscripts to The City of God” [Culver, 1141].
Augustine’s influence cannot be underestimated. As a leading early Church theologian, he crystallized the non-literal, symbolic approach to reading prophetic literature by the Church from that point onward. I hope to explore his influence at greater length in a later post. At this point however, it is important to review the main theological talking points of amillennialism.
The first and foremost theological point is more of a hermeneutical principle I have discussed before. That being, prophetic literature is symbolic or typographical and must be interpreted in a non-literal or historic redemptive fashion. Books like Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation are of an unique biblical genre meant to convey the unfolding drama of redemptive history.
Those prophetic books are apocalyptic in nature, written for the purpose of revealing how the great forces of evil that fight against God will finally be vanquished and to inspire hope in the people of God who will have certain victory over those forces. They are books filled with a great amount of symbolism, and those symbols should be understood non-literally or typographically. Hence, when we come to Revelation 20, the millennium discussed there is not meant to be understood as 1,000, 24 hour days, but must be understood as a period of time. That principle was the key interpretative presupposition for Augustine to develop his amillennialism, and adherents have built upon his work over the years.
A second key theological talking point is the idea of a singular consummation. Amillennialist believe biblical history knows of only two ages: this present age and the age to come. Thus, there is but only one climatic event awaiting to take place, the Return of Christ.
Paul wrote to Titus that Christians should look for one blessed hope, the appearing of our Great God and Savior, Jesus Christ (Titus 2:12-15). There is no indication of an intermediary kingdom taking place after His Return, or a “golden age of peace” happening before His Return. This present age in which men live will come to an abrupt end at the coming of Christ. The Second Coming of Christ brings history to a close. The general judgment of all men, the just and the unjust, or what would be the Great White Throne judgment, takes place immediately after Christ’s coming. The Christian’s hope is fully realized at Christ’s Return and everlasting communion with God will be experienced forever, [Craigen, 10].
With those two primary points in mind, when we come to Revelation 20, there are at least four major elements defining amillennialism:
Revelation 20 does not follow chapter 19 chronologically, but is a recapitulation describing events which parallel previously revealed events. Amillenialists argue that one big mistake made when reading Revelation is to assume it is meant to be read in chronological order. However, Revelation is prophetic literature meant to be read as a series of visions rather than historical narrative. So, it is important to understand that John may have a series of visions in one chapter, and then another set of visions in the next chapter which go back and provide a different perspective of the previous visions.
Amillennialists, rather than seeing Revelation 20 as a vision of events following in chronological order after those events in Revelation 19, believe the visions of Revelation 20 return the reader back to the first of the Church age. Instead of being in chronological order, Revelation 20 parallels with what has been previously revealed, so that the millennium described in 20:1-6 is taking place contemporaneously with other earlier chapters in Revelation.
For instance, William Hendrickson, an amillennialist who wrote a popular commentary on Revelation called More than Conquerors, suggests Revelation 20 parallels with the events described in Revelation 12. When the reader understands the manner in which the book of Revelation fits together, it can be understood why amillennialists believe the 1,000 years are symbolic, rather than literal.
The thousand years described by John is ONLY found here in Revelation 20. When the Scriptures are searched, Revelation 20 is the only passage which speaks of Christ “reigning for a thousand years.” This passage is found in only one book of the Bible that is heavily symbolic, and the author builds his book upon the heavily symbolic prophetic literature of the OT. Thus, it is highly unlikely that the thousand years John relates in his book is meant to be taken as a literal thousand years and it must be viewed as symbolic.
The binding of Satan represents a victory over the powers of darkness by Christ at the cross. The idea of Satan being bound is not a literal binding in the sense of being restrained in some spiritual prison called the abyss. Rather, the expression “Satan was bound” is taken figuratively to mean he has lost a certain amount of authority he once possessed.
Turning back to Revelation 1:18, Jesus, due to His victory on the cross, now has authority over death and hades. This realm was once the sole dominion of the devil, but Christ’s death for sinners and His Resurrection for their justification, has changed the situation. As it says in Matthew 16:18, Christ’s authority in His Church overcomes the gates of hell [Riddlebarger, 211].
Now, that is not to say Satan does not oppose Christ and the Church. The amillennialists vehemently argue that dissenters to their view wrongly conclude this binding eliminates any working by Satan. The current state of wickedness in the world demonstrates otherwise. What Satan can no longer do, however, is “deceive” the nations. In other words, Satan cannot hinder the gospel from going forth in the world to bring men to salvation [ibid, 212].
The “first resurrection” in Revelation 20:4,5 is the spiritual resurrection of regeneration. Amillennialists do not believe that John meant to convey the idea of a physical resurrection from the dead when he writes about the “first resurrection.” Instead, John has in mind regeneration, or a spiritual resurrection from the spiritual dead, what happens when a person is “born again.”
Amillennialists make this case based upon a couple of important arguments. First is the Greek word protos, translated as “first” in the phrase “first resurrection.” John, it is argued, is not speaking to first, in the sense of first in a sequential series, but rather first in a contrast between differences. In other words, he is contrasting different resurrections and he uses the word protos to indicate difference of kind with the resurrection that follows [ibid, 218]. John writes similar terminology in Revelation 21:1 with his use of protos that contrasts the new heaven and new earth with the old. Then secondly, in John’s gospel, the apostle records in chapter 5:24, 25 the words of Jesus when He likens spiritual life to crossing over from death unto life. What is clearly understood to be a spiritual resurrection.
Then there are a couple of other arguments not particularly found in Revelation which I need to reference.
First, a literal thousand years means millions of resurrected saints are living among millions of unresurrected people. Such a notion is perceived as just being too weird that it has to be unbiblical. What’s the purpose of God’s glorified saints living among people who still remained in a fallen state?
Second, a literal thousand years implies a millennial temple is built as described in Ezekiel 40-48 implementing real sacrifices for atonement to cover sin. This is a regression back to the old economy before Christ who, according to Hebrews, took away sin once and for all. Even if those sacrifices are taken as being a memorial, why is there a need for such sacrifices when the true lamb of God who took away the sins of the world is present among all men?
Now, there may be some additional arguments, but those are the main ones I have encountered in amillennial apologetics. With my next post, I want to outline postmillennialism.
Trever Craigen, A Preliminary Critique of Contemporary Amillennialism, (on-line paper).
Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology: Biblical and Historical. (Christian Focus: Great Britian, 2005).
Anthony A. Hoekema, The Bible and The Future. (Eerdmans: Grand Rapid, MI, 1979).
Charles Powell, Progression Verses Recapitulation in Revelation 20:1-6: Some Over Looked Arguments. (on-line paper).
Kim Riddlebarger, The Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End-times. (Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, MI, 2008).