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The meaning of the Millennium

Bob_Dylan_-_Slow_Train_ComingIt is curious that we get more excited about the supposed events leading up to Jesus’ second coming than we do about what that coming itself will bring. It is a bit like being more excited about the fixtures and fittings on a train than where the train is actually going to take you.

My previous post addressed the confusions that arise from misreading the ‘little apocalypse’ in Matthew 24, and I have posted elsewhere about Mark 13 and about the doctrine of ‘the rapture‘, as well as some of Jesus’ teaching about judgement. I am posting here a brief overview I wrote some years ago of approaches to the millennium in Rev 20.1–6. The content is posted below, and the original handout is attached as a document.


Pre-millennialism
What does it say?
That Christ will come (pre the millennium) (19.11), Satan is bound (20.2), then the saints will rule on earth with Christ for 1000 actual years (20.6), after which Satan is released (20.7), judgement takes place (20.11), and there is an end to death (20.14).

Who believes this?
This was the dominant view of the early church and commentators on Revelation until Augustine. It still has adherents (such as G E Ladd).

What is good about it?
It takes the order of Rev 19 and 20 at face value, and takes seriously the earthly dimension of Christ’s return.

What are its disadvantages?
It takes the millennium literally alone of all the numbers in Revelation. It does not pay attention to the complexities of the passages. It is hard to reconcile the idea of an interim kingdom of God on earth with what the rest of the NT says.

Dispensational Premillennialism
What does it say?
Additionally that prior to Christ’s return, there will be a ‘rapture’ of the saints, who will escape the subsequent ‘tribulation’ of three-and-a-half years (a half-week of years, Dan 9.27).

Who believes this?
This is widespread in North America. Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth. It was first proposed by J N Darby, one of the founders of the Brethren movement, and published in the Scofield Reference Bible in 1909.

What is good about it?
It urges on people the need to make a positive decision to follow Christ.

What are its disadvantages?
It assembles texts all over the NT into a chronological jigsaw, disregarding their original meanings: Matt 24.40, 1 Thess 4.13–18, Rev 3.10, Ps 90.4/2 Peter 3.8. The word ‘tribulation’ simply means ‘suffering’. The clear message of Rev and the gospels (eg Matt 24.29) is that Jesus will return for his own after the period of suffering—Christians are not exempt.

Amillennialism
What does it say?
That there will be no literal or future 100 years. The term refers to the in-between time from Jesus’ resurrection to his second coming.

Who believes this?
It was first proposed by Augustine in the early fifth century in City of God, and is a widely-held view today. 

What is good about it?
It avoids a materialistic view of the future and literalism. Makes Revelation easier to relate to what the rest of the NT says about Jesus’ return, and the millennium relevant to Christians now, as we are in it!

What are its disadvantages?
It supposes that Rev 20.1 steps back in time to Jesus’ time, when in Revelation it appears still to be future. The first resurrection (20.5) is simply the presence of the martyrs with Christ in heaven, which is unlikely. 1000 is not square or rectangular, so does not relate to 1260 days or 42 months.

Postmillennialism
What does it say?
That Rev 20.1 is a step back, but to some point in history after Jesus’ resurrection. Thus there is a golden age of the Spirit on earth before Christ returns.

Who believes this?
Joachim of Fiore proposed this in the twelfth century, and it was popular during the social optimism of the 18th and 19th centuries among people like Wilberforce. No-one really holds to it since the trauma of the First World War.

What is good about it?
It motivates social reform and involvement.

What are its disadvantages?
It is hard to square with the details of the text, and there is little evidence of a new millennial age in the world at large.

You can download the document as a table here: Four views of Millennium


In fact, none of these schemes is satisfactory, since they treat the millennium chronologically rather than theologically—they think that it is one event in a sequence, rather than being one way of explaining Jesus’ return set amongst other ways of understanding it. Rev 19–21 actually contains seven unnumbered visions, each of which starts with the phrase ‘And I saw…’ at Rev 19.11, 19.17, 19.19, 20.1, 20.4, 20.11, 21.1. As with other series in Revelation, we need to read them concurrently rather than sequentially, as giving a range of different insights into the meaning of Jesus’ return. Since Jesus was, is and will be the answer to all God’s promises in Scripture, it is perhaps no surprise that each of these dimensions has its roots in the Old Testament. This is my summary of the key themes we find in these chapters:

  • Justice will conquer (19.11)
  • The Word will prevail (19.15)
  • Deception will die (19.20, 20.10)
  • The saints are vindicated (20.4)
  • Heavens and earth will be remade (20.11, 21.1)
  • Death will be no more (20.14, 21.4)
  • God is present with his people (21.3, 21.16)

31CQCEwOOlLSome years ago Mike Gilbertson wrote a really helpful Grove booklet on this, The Meaning of the Millennium. He summarises the theological significance of the millennium under the following headings:

  • The victory of God
  • The lordship of Christ
  • The vindication of the saints
  • The renewal of the earth

Mike concludes:

In this booklet, I have argued that the millennium of Revelation 20 is a rich and powerful symbol with important implications for our understanding of God’s relationship with the world. I have also suggested that the long-established debates between the various traditional approaches to the text (premillennialism, postmillennialism, amillennialism) tend sometimes to obscure the theological significance of the passage. The approach I have adopted is to see the millennium neither as the prediction of a literal future state, nor as a time- less abstraction. Rather, I have interpreted it as a symbol which conveys key truths about God’s plan to execute his justice and renew the world. The symbol is situated in the future, but has profound implications for how we live now…

The biblical vision of the triumph of God, the lordship of Christ, God’s vindication of his people, and his commitment to transform the earth, provides the church with compelling resources to speak prophetically and relevantly in this contemporary context. The symbol of the millennium helps us to affirm profound hope for the present and the future in the light of the ultimate power of God’s love and justice.

It is well worth a read—it is really time we got more excited about where the train is taking us!

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2 Responses to The meaning of the Millennium

  1. Paul Seymour August 1, 2014 at 9:01 am #

    Being brought up in the Plymouth Brethren, then the Baptists, then the Elim Church/Assemblies of God before loosing all faith and years latter finding it in a very reflective C of E service. I have always found these readings and this discussion something between Christian water boarding and incoherence.

    So thank you for your clear and brief description!

    I increasingly am drawn to Apologetics and am hoping to find an MA level course but wonder how this helps us defend our belief and expand its influence, in a positive manner.

  2. Chris Bishop August 1, 2014 at 5:11 pm #

    This is a very interesting and helpful post Ian. I have much sympathy with Paul above and his disillusionment with so-called evangelical theology. The kind of thinking you describe is endemic within conservative and evangelical approaches to the Bible and owes much to a strict emphasis on the functional literalism of words which are divorced from their historicity, culture and context. This is coupled with a particular mindset that borders on treating the Bible as an idol and breeds a herd instinct often focused around prominent personalities.

    Such proponents boast on their soundness of biblical interpretation whereas they are in many cases, adopting a very unsound approach to scripture. The assumption that the literal ‘plain meaning’ of the text is the correct interpretation in the absence of any indication of allegorical, poetic or symbolic genre is simply a claim that the Bible never asserts for itself.

    Having come to faith in a strong evangelical landscape I have latterly come to see that starting point for all or most Biblical interpretation is to ensure that you are certain that you are reading the meaning of the text as it was intended for the original reader. If you cannot clearly demonstrate that you know this, then you really shouldn’t comment.

    The thing is, – that determining what the text meant to the original reader requires effort and careful study. I have found that in many evangelical churches it’s much easier to just work with the functional meaning of words to produce an interpretation rather that do the necessary research to determine their contemporary usage. It’s too much like hard work for the average evangelical.

    As one who would consider himself an evangelical of the conservative kind, I think I have been protected from much functional literalism by my strong scientific and mathematical training. This has caused me to examine much of the assertions made by evangelical functional literalists and I have searched far and wide to endeavour to put myself into the mind of those for whom the text was originally written. As a result I have found that my faith has been deepened, placed on a firmer footing, my confidence in the Bible as being the authoritative word of God strengthened and I have been set free from a number of misconceptions that troubled and held me back in developing as a Christian. I have also not turned into a liberal!

    So If you are still tuned in Paul, then do not be disheartened. Ultimately your faith rests on a living relationship with God and not on a doctrinally accurate set of theological suppositions. The basic message of the Bible can be understood by a little child. We only know in part but if you continue to trust in Him then in time He will make things clearer and lead you through to the light at the end.

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