A Historic Premillennialist Challenge to Amillennialism

“They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.” – Revelation 20:4

In a previous post, I attempted to deconstruct Historic Premillennialism using some of the critiques of Sam Storms, and then I attempted to build an alternative understanding of Revelation chapter 20 using the insights of G.K. Beale. In this post I would like to do the opposite, namely, ask what might a Historic Premillennialist say to an Amillennialist, such as Dean Davis, G.K. Beale, Lane Tipton, Geerhardus Vos, Vern Poythress, or Sam Storms? As Beale has noted, many Amillennialists and Historic Premillennialists agree at virtually every point, except Revelation chapter 20. For example, when George Eldon Ladd (a Historic Premillennialist) debated Anthony Hoekema (an Amillennnialist), Ladd stated, “I am in agreement with practically all that Hoekema has written with the exception of his exegesis of Revelation 20.”[1] Thus, it is Revelation 20 that will be our central focus.

Unlike last post that sought to first deconstruct and then to construct, this post will proceed like a lawyer’s brief, looking at all the pertinent pieces of evidence. This post will use the insights of Thomas Schreiner, Wayne Grudem, George Eldon Ladd, and others to bring some of the most persuasive pieces of evidence together.

First, in Revelation 20:2-3, Satan is bound for 1,000 years: “He threw him into the abyss, closed it, and put a seal on it so that he would no longer deceive the nations until the 1,000 years were completed” (HCSB). This is different from what we see in Revelation 12: “So the great dragon was thrown out—the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the one who deceives the whole world. He was thrown to earth, and his angels with him” (v.9). Being cast to the earth and cast to the abyss are different. The former happened at the crucifixion of Christ, and the latter will happen in the future during the millennial reign of Christ. Note the language of the “binding”: the abyss is closed—nay, sealed—and Satan is no longer able to deceive the nations. But, currently, he does continue to deceive and pester believers.[2] This reason alone was enough for Puritan Cotton Mather to posit a future millennial reign: “That the blessed thousand years are not yet begun, is abundantly clear from this, We do not see the devil bound; no, the devil was never more let loose than in our days.”[3] The Bible says the devil is the “ruler of this world” (John 14:30), the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2), the “tempter” (1 Thess. 3:5), the “god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4), the “father of lies” (John 8:44), and a “roaring lion” (1 Pet. 5:8). Clearly, Mather was correct: do these descriptions depict someone who is “sealed” in the abyss, unable to deceive?

Second, in Revelation 6 we read of the martyrs saying, “Lord, the One who is holy and true, how long until You judge and avenge our blood from those who live on the earth?” (v.10). They were told: “rest a little while longer” (v.11). Now, in chapter 20, they are not told to wait; rather, “They came to life and reigned with the Messiah for 1,000 years” (v.4).[4] 20:4 declares their time of waiting is over because of what Christ had done in chapter 19.

Third, 20:10 reads, “The Devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet are, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.” Interestingly, the beast and false prophet are thrown into the lake of fire in 19:20. Now, in Revelation 20:10, the devil goes where they “are also.” The most natural reading of this text is that Satan is going where the beast and false prophet already are (i.e., not concomitantly with them). Therefore, there is not a recapitulation between Revelation 19 and 20, but progression.[5]

Forth, many maintain that a future millennium is doubtful because it is only explicitly mentioned in one place in the Bible (Rev. 20). But something only needs to be said once in the Bible for it to be true.[6] Prophecy is often like a mountain: when you are far away you only see one big peak, but as you draw near you see that there are multiple peaks. Similarly, the Bible spoke in broad strokes until the very last book of the Bible where it reveals multiple peaks.

Fifth, the Old Testament reveals states of affairs that are not present realities, nor will they be realities in the New Heavens and New Earth (c.f., Ps. 72:8-14; Isa. 11:2-11; 65:20; Zech. 14:6-21; 1 Cor. 15:24; Rev. 2:27; 12:5; 19:15). These passages are best understood as depicting the millennium.[7]

Sixth, regarding the two resurrections in Revelation 20, it is claimed by some that there will only be one resurrection, which will contain both the just and the unjust. Revelation 20 separates the resurrection of the just and the resurrection of the unjust with the millennium. However, even in other parts of the Bible you begin to see hints of two different resurrections. John 5:28-29, for example, says, “Do not be amazed at this, because a time is coming when all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come out—those who have done good things, to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked things, to the resurrection of judgment.” Similarly, Daniel 12:2 teaches, “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake, some to eternal life, and some to shame and eternal contempt.” We see the distinction between the just and the unjust with regards to the resurrection(s), and it is not until Revelation 20 that this distinction is in fact explicitly said to be two separate resurrections. This doesn’t contradict other portions of Scripture; it just builds on them.[8]

Seventh, many wonder how glorified believers can live on the earth with ungloried unbelievers. Grudem retorts, “It is certainly not impossible for God to bring this about. We must realize that Jesus lived on the earth with a glorified body for forty days after his resurrection, and apparently there were many other Old Testament saints who lived with glorified bodies on the earth during that time as well (Matt. 27:53).”[9] Thus we have examples of many people living alongside unbelievers with glorified bodies.

Eighth, while the purpose of the millennium is not altogether known, there are perhaps three purposes we can see thus far. First, it would show the outworking of God’s purpose in society (e.g., family, civil structures, etc.) Second, God’s righteousness will be further vindicated because sin will be shown to be truly evil and something intrinsic to fallen man. With Satan bound and Jesus visibly reigning, the fact that sin still abounds in the hearts of men vindicates God’s justice upon the reprobate and magnifies His grace upon the elect. Third, if the long progression of the Bible has shown us anything, it has shown us that “God’s way is not to bring to realization all of his good purposes at once, but to unfold them gradually over time.”[10]

Ninth, there are actually other New Testament texts that suggest a future millennial reign. Revelation 2:26-27 states, “The one who is victorious and keeps My works to the end: I will give him authority over the nations—and he will shepherd them with an iron scepter; he will shatter them like pottery—just as I have received this from My Father.” This is a rule of force over rebellious people, which will not be a reality in the New Heavens and New Earth.[11] Also, in 1 Corinthians 15:23-26 we read, “But each in his own order: Christ, the firstfruits; afterward, at His coming, those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when He abolishes all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He puts all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy to be abolished is death.” Ladd explains the connection to the millennium:

In 1 Corinthians 15:23-26 Paul pictures the triumph of Christ’s kingdom as being accomplished in several stages. The resurrection of Christ is the first stage (tagma). The second stage will occur at the Parousia when those who are Christ’s will share his resurrection… The adverbs translated “then” are epeita, eita, which denote a sequence: “after that.” There are three distinct stages: Jesus’ resurrection; after that (epeita) the resurrection of believers at the resurrection; after that (eita) the end (telos). An unidentified interval falls between Christ’s resurrection and his Parousia, and a second undefined interval falls between his Parousia and the telos, when Christ completes the subjugation of his enemies.[12]

Tenth, the Bible teaches that the reigning with Christ is still future (c.f., Luke 19:17, 19; 1 Cor. 6:3; Rev. 2:26-27; 3:21). Unlike the amillennialist teaching, nowhere does the Bible say that believers rule in the intermediate state (between one’s death and one’s resurrection).[13]

Eleventh, the first resurrection (contra amillennialism) is physical. “Came to life” in 20:4 refers to bodily resurrection, for it is designated “first resurrection” in the next verse. Moreover, the verb ἔζησαν is the same as in Revelation 2:8, where Jesus is said to be the one “who died and came to life.”[14] While the verb has been used in a spiritual sense (i.e., entrance into spiritual life) in John 5:25, it is typically used to connote bodily resurrection (c.f., John 11:25; Rom. 14:9; Rev. 1:18; 2:8; 13:14)—and is never used of a spiritual resurrection at death.[15]  Also, there is an allusion to Daniel 7 where “they came to life again and reigned with Christ a thousand years” (Rev. 20:4) parallels “And the time came when the saints received the kingdom” (Dan. 7:22).[16] This evidences to the fact that both resurrections are physical. “If in such a passage,” writes Henry Alford, “the first resurrection many 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.”[17] Ladd concludes:

The language of the passage is quite clear and unambiguous. There is no necessity to interpret either word spiritually in order to introduce meaning to the passage. At the beginning of the millennial period, part of the dead come to life; at its conclusion, the rest of the dead come to life. There is no evident play upon words. The passage makes perfectly good sense when interpreted literally. Natural, inductive exegesis suggests that both uses of ezesan are to be taken in the same way, referring to a literal resurrection.[18]

Twelfth, Sung Wook Chung argues that the Adamic covenant demands a millennial reign of Christ. “Since the Edenic covenants of blessing and the law were given in the context of this earth, they must be fulfilled on this earth before its entrance into the eternal and transformed state of the new heavens and new earth,” he writes.[19] Chung continues:

Adam’s kingly rule has both a spiritual/priestly dimension and a physical/institutional dimension. Through the first coming of Jesus Christ, the last Adam began to restore and fulfill both the spiritual and the physical dimensions of the first Adam’s kingly rule. The first Adam’s kingly rule has, however, not yet been completely restored and fulfilled. In particular, although Satan’s head was crushed by the cross, he is still making a great impact upon the physical/institutional dimension of the world system. Therefore, by establishing the millennial kingdom, Jesus Christ, as the last Adam, will restore and fulfill not only the spiritual/priestly dimension but also the physical/institutional dimension of the first Adam’s kingdom.[20]

Thirteenth, though not authoritative, the Historic Premillennial position is older than amillennialism, postmillennialism, and dispensational premillennialism. The posttribulation and premillennial positions were the dominant view in the early church. Early Church Fathers such as Papias (who was the disciple of John, the author of Revelation), Justin Martyr, Hippolytus, Tertullian, and Irenaeus all held to this position.[21]

Fourteenth, unlike some who want to see Revelation 20 as a glimpse “behind the scenes” in heaven of the “souls beheaded,” it seems more likely that the scene is on earth. Revelation 20:1 begins by saying, “Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven.” “And if the statement ‘they came to life’ (Rev. 20:4) means, as we believe, bodily resurrection, then the scene is the earth,” writes Ladd.[22]

Recommended resources:

© J. Brandon Burks, 2016

[1]George Eldon Ladd, “An Hisitoric Premillennial Response”, in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, ed. by Robert G. Clouse (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1977), 189.

[2]This point is made by Thomas Schreiner in a sermon he preached on June 14, 2009 at Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, KY entitled “Millennium.” http://cliftonbaptist.org/sermons-and-audio/?sermon_id=241.

[3]Cotton Mather, On Witchcraft (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2005; first published 1692), 58.

[4]Schreiner, “Millennium.”

[5]Ibid.

[6]Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Bible Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 1117.

[7]Ibid., 1117, 1127-1131.

[8]Ibid., 1119.

[9]Ibid., 1120.

[10]Ibid., 1121.

[11]Ibid., 1130.

[12]George Eldon Ladd, “Historic Premillennialism,” in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, ed. by Robert G. Clouse (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1977), 38-39.

[13]Grudem, Systematic Theology, 1131.

[14]Ibid.

[15]George Eldon Ladd, A Commentary on the Revelation of John (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1972), 265.

[16]Ibid., 267.

[17]As quoted in: Ibid.

[18]266-267.

[19] Sung Wook Chung, “Toward the Reformed and Covenantal Theology of Premillennialism: A Proposal,” in A Case for Historic Premillennialism: An Alternative to “Left Behind” Eschatology, ed. by Craig L. Blomberg and Sung Wook Chung (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 143.

[20]Ibid., 142.

[21]Greg R. Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 685-686; Donald Fairbairn, “Contemporary Millennial/Tribulation Debates: Whose Side Was the Early Church On?,” in A Case for Historic Premillennialism: An Alternative to “Left Behind” Eschatology, ed. by Craig L. Blomberg and Sung Wook Chung (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 105-131.

[22]Ladd, “An Historic Premillennial Response,” 189.

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